The woman who pretended to be who she was (online)

By Lawrence Liang

21 February 2017

As the internet changes, it challenges us to ask who we really are both online and offline
A librarians’ meeting in Second Life. Flickr / Fabio Metitieri

A librarians’ meeting in Second Life. Flickr / Fabio Metitieri

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

– Kurt Vonnegut

On online social networks like Facebook, it has become commonplace to refer to our online personas as extensions of our offline selves; for instance, in Second Life – a virtual world complete with currency, marriages, land ownership, national embassies and much else – users’ personas are called ‘avatars’. But what does it mean to extend one’s identity into the internet? Does the persona translate with ease across these different extensions and performances of the self? Where and how does one draw a line between the ‘virtual’ and the ‘real’ self? What does it mean to ‘inhabit’ or ‘dwell in’ an online space?

We increasingly encounter traumatic experiences online: suicide notes on Facebook, the sharing of personal sexual videos, increasing cases of impersonation and character theft. While all of these pose new problems for our thinking on the future of online ethics, there is a slightly more mundane phenomenon that seems to hold the key to unravelling many of these larger questions: the gap that people sometimes experience between meeting someone online and encountering the same person offline. This often takes place in the realm of romantic encounters but is certainly not limited to them, and the idea that people aren’t as they appear to be online often provokes deep disappointment, at times even a sense of betrayal or having been cheated. It feels as though, on the internet, the person had been impersonating someone else all along. But if it is impersonation, then the question is who exactly was the person impersonating?

The word ‘persona’ comes to us via Latin – Per Soane referred either to an actor’s mask or, more literally, to that through which the sound of an actor’s voice was heard. ‘Personae’ is also the root word for ‘person’ and ‘personality’. Balinese dancers, as well as South Indian Kuchipudi dancers, claim that for a performance to be really effective, the face inside the mask must become indistinguishable from the mask itself, and that the best dancers are those who are able to take their inner emotions and project them through the mask. So, when we return to the very basic idea of personhood, we immediately face the dilemma of how and where to draw a boundary between a person and his or her persona. The philosopher Giles Deleuze once said of his collaboration with the psychologist and philosopher Guattari, “I used to work alone, and even that was too many people, and then came Guatarri.” Reworking that quote for our times, one could say, “I used to be too many people, and then came the internet.”

The ideal subject of psychiatry – assumed to be a healthy, self-contained person who knows where his or her self ends and other selves begin – may be one of the sustaining myths of modern subjectivity. Modern medicine and psychiatry has always seen the possibility of multiple selves within the same subject in pathological terms. But what if we replaced the language of ‘multiple selves’ with ‘online personas’? Would we have to invent a new pathology of multiple persona disorders?

Cybertheorists like Donna Haraway and Katherine Hayles have long pondered the relationship between online and offline selves, but we have seen very little work on these questions in the Southasian context, where much of the discourse around online personas has been dominated either by the concerns of states and governments, or by the language of using information technology for ‘development’. Notable exceptions include the work of Namita Malhotra and that of Nishant Shah, who characterises the regulatory anxieties of the state as producing three predominant figures who personify our online anxieties: the pervert in his cubicle, the terrorist with his cellphone, and the music and video pirate. By foregoing serious engagement with critical cyber theory in the region, we have created a vacuum in which we are unable to articulate Southasian techno-social experiences, and have allowed the discussion to be dominated by the vacuous rubbish that states and NGOs produce.

Reworking a famous Giles Deleuze quote for our times, one could say, ‘I used to be too many people, and then came the Internet’

It is urgent that we address these questions philosophically since the internet and mobile communication technology is fast becoming ubiquitous in most parts of Southasia. We regularly see events (personal sex videos made public online, teenager Adnan Patrawala’s kidnapping and murder in 2007 by five of his Orkut acquaintances) that demand serious attention beyond their status as scandals since they raise fundamental questions about subjectivity, privacy, trust and techno-sociality. We need to revisit some of the debates on the nature of online identities and the idea of impersonation, and think critically of the relationship between personhood and persona online. Specifically, we should reflect on the shift from the early days of the internet, which were marked by the popularity of role-playing games and the creation of multiple personas, to the alleged ‘realism’ of Facebook, where the online ‘you’ is supposed to be the same as the offline one.

Virtual reality or real virtuality

One of the most insightful parables applicable to our virtual times comes from an ancient Chinese story about the transformative nature of dreams. It is said that the philosopher Choang Tzu dreamt one night that he was a butterfly, and vividly experienced what it felt like to flutter between flowers (when he was a butterfly he didn’t know he was Choang Tzu). When he awoke from the dream he was no longer sure whether he was Choang Tzu the philosopher who had dreamed he was a butterfly, or if he was merely a butterfly dreaming that he was Chaong Tzu the philosopher. This blurring of reality and illusion, or alternatively the experience of a liminality in which the bounded self momentarily experiences itself in an uncanny fashion, is a theme that runs through popular films ranging from Bladerunner and The Matrix to No Smoking and, most recently, Mithya.

It also speaks to the experiences that we increasingly have of encountering people who seem to have a split between their online persona and offline identity. The charming, funny online person we encounter in the chatroom or on social networks suddenly becomes a gawky, self-conscious stranger, prompting you to wonder if she is the same person at all. But is this shy gawky person just pretending to be who she is online? Or is it the case that she is really a charming confident person who has to pretend to be socially awkward in the offline world? In her 1985 book The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit, Sherry Turkle, an academic who focuses on the interaction between humans and technology, provided an account of the now commonplace experience of a failed romance that started off as a seemingly perfect relationship online. She quotes an interior designer:

I didn’t exactly lie to him about anything specific, but I do feel very different online. I am more outgoing, less inhibited. I feel closer to who I wish I was. I am just hoping that face to face I can find a way to spend some time being the online me.

We see this split between a ‘real’ and an ‘ideal’ self cited in many popular films, including the 2008 release Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi.

One of the most influential meditations on the nature of early online experiences is Julian Dibbel’s account of a rape in cyberspace in his 1999 work, My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World. Dibbel narrates a rape that took place in one of the most popular multi-users dungeons (MUD) of the time – what we refer to today as a virtual community – called LambdaMOO. Much of the online interaction in the early days of the internet took place as textual or literary experience. LambdaMOO, for instance, was a space in which the living room was described as “very bright, open, and airy here, with large plate-glass windows looking southward over the pool to the gardens beyond. On the north wall, there is a rough stonework fireplace. The east and west walls are almost completely covered with large, well-stocked bookcases.”

The characters in LambdaMOO knew each other through their written character descriptions, and large numbers of users presented themselves as imaginary beings with little connection to their real identities. Tinkerbelle was “a human-sized, cyber-punk petite reptile with tasteful pale purple scales and skin resembling the dull side of a piece of aluminium foil”. The programme also allowed players to define their gender in a flexible manner, and the possibilities included ‘male’, ‘female’, ‘both’, ‘neuter’ and ‘indeterminate’, among others. One of the most common pastimes in LambdaMoo, then, was gender guessing, with the most skilled players using subtle gender-bending subterfuge, such as impersonating a man who plays a woman pretending to be a man. The self-contained world of LambdaMOO was, however, seriously disrupted by the emergence of a Mr Bungle, a “down-at-the-heels harlequin” who hacked into the LambdaMOO server and seized control of two other characters – Legba, a “Haitian trickster spirit”, and Starsinger, a “tall, stout female”. Mr Bungle then went on to ‘rape’ Legba, and forced Starsinger to enact a ritual of self-mutilation in front of the entire LambdaMOO community, with both acts narrated in graphic language in a chatroom.

Dibbel says that, “Months later, the woman in Seattle [Legba] would confide to me that as she wrote those words [recounting the rape to Dibbel] post-traumatic tears were streaming down her face – a real-life fact that should suffice to prove that the words’ emotional content was no mere playacting.” In the LamdbaMOO case, it seems that the challenge was to conceptualise the nature of online identity, and the nature of the self that was produced through narratives in online communities. The rape provoked an intense debate within the community about the nature of what had taken place. If rape was, by definition, a physical assault, then in what manner could we say that anything happened at all? Could we extrapolate offline laws into the online world? How do you account for the real trauma experienced by someone even if the violence that was done to them was done to a fictitious online persona that they had invented? There were no easy answers, and the questions raised in the LambdaMOO case continue to haunt us. If the story of the LambdaMOO rape seemed closer to science fiction at the time, when much of the world had not experienced the internet yet, we should also recognise it retrospectively for doing what good science fiction does – prophesise the future.

Many of the debates that arose in the wake of the LambdaMOO case were framed by the binary of the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’. But is this binary useful any longer, especially in the common way that we understand the virtual as an aspect of a fictive really? Deleuze, for instance, rejects attempts at presenting binaries, and instead proposes that the virtual and the actual are two mutually exclusive yet self-sufficient characterisations of the real. For him, the virtual is a zone that awaits its actualisation in the realm of the real.

How then are we to rethink the idea of a virtual persona after moving away from these binaries, and how does it force us to rethink the relationship between a person and a persona? In the LambdaMOO case, it was precisely a dilution of the line between the two realms that created ontological problems. In the context of cyberspace, where does the body end and the mind begin? Can someone be harmed physically without their body being harmed? What does it mean to be injured via an act of speech? In an MUD or a virtual community, can one draw a distinction between the mind and the body? And isn’t the mind the body in a narrative world? Does real subjectivity exist only in the organic body if people have invested so much into the building of online characters? In the LambdaMOO case, could it be argued that that there was full subjectivity though it was not located in an organic body?

The rise of devices that rely on tactile communication only complicates the question of where our devices end and where our bodies begin. We name our computers, suffer email withdrawal, and find it impossible imagine how people conducted romances before mobile phones and SMS

Another intriguing case was that of ‘Joan/Alex’. Joan was a neuropsychologist who had been severely disabled and disfigured in a car accident that had killed her boyfriend and damaged her own speech and motor coordination. Because of her disabilities, she started communicating with people online and started developing a community of people around her who found her to be sensitive and intelligent. Joan was also very close to her friend and mentor, Alex, a New York psychiatrist. None of these new contacts had actually met Joan, but she had a large number of intimate relationships with people online, including a number of women who were involved with Alex. These women, in turn, shared intimate details of their amorous relationship with Alex with Joan. Alex finally announced that he had been pretending to be Joan all along, and that there was no such character – it was just a persona that he had adopted. The incident predictably caused a furore, and there were demands made for the regulation of online interactions in which people adopted other personas.

Two developments in social theory, namely the rise of ‘post-human’ theory and the turn to ‘affect’ in social theory, allow us to reconsider the LambdaMOO case from a fresh perspective. Haraway’s idea of the cyborg (hybrid entities embedded in technology and information networks) was the first move away from the liberal idea of the human being as universal subject and privileged bearer of consciousness, free rights and free will. That work has been subsequently developed by scholars like Katherine Hayles, who argues that liberal humanism was posited on the difference between the mind and the body, where the body is often seen as a container or a shell for the mind. This, however, has become complicated in the late 20th and 21st centuries because information technology and biotechnology fundamentally redefine the experience of the body. The two sites most often associated with the post-human are biological interventions into the human body – cloning, gene therapy, artificial wombs, in vitro fertilisation – and cybernetic interventions that either modify the human body or fashion artificial life in its evolutionary image. Both sites have been deeply influenced by conceptualisation of the human mind and body as information: biology through seeing DNA as an informational code; cybernetics through envisioning systems as constituted by the flow of information through them.

The technologication of everyday life makes us all cyborgs either literally (Google Glasses, Stephen Hawking) or metaphorically (performative cyborgs, participatory cyborgs, mobile phones). The rise of personal haptic technologies and devices – those that rely on tactile communication – only complicates the question of where our devices end and where our bodies begin. We express our engagement with technologies in affective terms and form intimate relationships with our technologies. We name our computers, we suffer email withdrawal symptoms, and it is almost impossible to imagine how people ever conducted romances before cellphones and SMS. These intimate interfaces don’t just do things for us, they do things to us and they have emerged as sites for our fantasies, much as film is a screen for the projection of our psychic desires. Often, our very sense of intimacy is shaped, designed, experienced and lived through interfaces. The interfaces that we see all around us constantly deflect our attention, emotions and desires onto different surfaces, creating flattened universes with the promise of deep immersion. And yet the post-human condition does not do away with some of the basic questions that have defined the idea of the human condition. From questions of personal identity and responsibility to the vexed questions of ethics and responsibility, what happens to the larger questions when we move towards incorporeal realms, when we begin to acknowledge our immaterial selves? If we take virtuality seriously as a form of life, how do we start thinking about the ethical implications of these questions?

From avatars to self-impersonation

If in the early days of the internet the MUDs were marked by the creation and adoption of various virtual personas of the kind that we saw in the LambdaMOO example, as graphic user interfaces improved in the online world these textual traditions started giving way to more visual ones. It was in the early 2000s, for instance, that Linden Labs created what could be termed the Version 2.0 of virtual reality – Second Life. As of January 2008, ‘residents’ of Second Life had spent a total of 28,274,505 hours ‘inworld’, and on average 38,000 residents were logged in at any particular moment. Second Life can be seen in some ways as a technological form that exists between the purely textual world of LambdaMOO and the emergence of social networks like Facebook.

What are we to make of the Facebook phenomenon? We seem to have moved from a world in which identities and personas were created to one where ‘real’ identities are seemingly reproduced in the online world. On Facebook, you are supposed to be who you are, with real photos and real friends (even if you hate them). Facebook has also completely altered our temporal experience, with the line between event and narrative being allowed to dissolve. If earlier narrative followed the event as a sense-making exercise, there was always a temporal gap between the two. But with technologies of instant communication, where realtime narrative is uploaded to Facebook almost simultaneous to the event itself, what happens to the event-narrative divide? Is a party an experience that is narrativised and archived online, or is Facebook the perpetual event for which the party serves merely as a pretext? Facebook, it seems, has the potential to be a deeply immersive and perpetual archive, which, paradoxically, is experienced in a fleeting and ephemeral manner.

There is also a strange way in which Facebook acts as a self-contained world, in which the experience of time and space can all be contained within Facebook itself. So what are we to make of the difference between the online avatars and personas of MUDs and Second Life, compared to the representation of the self on Facebook? On the one hand, it seems like an impoverishment of what was a rich terrain of narrative possibilities and play; we have moved closer to the equivalent of a cinematic realism in online narratives. You are who you are and that’s that, no tasteful pale-purple scales or skin resembling aluminum. But what if we see the difference between them not as one being about impersonation and the other about representation? What if these were different forms of impersonation? Facebook raises a far more complex question of impersonation: What does it mean to impersonate yourself?

The theme of self-impersonation has a long history in mythology, and it runs through various cultures. Wendy Doniger has traced the myth through its various avatars in The Bedtrick: Tales of Sex and Masquerade. The theme of people who set out to become other people only to end up as themselves persists not just in myth but in a number of contemporary narratives as well, indicating that the question of identity and authenticity is not a problem that emerges with the internet, but one that gets seriously recalibrated in the online world. Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest, for instance, is about a man named Jack who pretends to be his own wayward brother, Ernest. At the end of the play, when it is revealed that he has indeed been earnest all along, he tells his wife, “It is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking the truth. Can you forgive me?” To which she says, “I feel I can because I think you can change.” Doniger says that many people have to wear masks to discover who they are under the mask that they usually wear, so that the overt masks reveal rather than conceal the truth, and reveal the self beneath the self. The paradox we have to live with is that impersonation is the closest that we can get to authenticity.

Lawrence Liang is a lawyer and writer at the Alternative Law Forum, Bangalore. He is also a distinguished fellow with the Centre for Internet and Society.

(This is an essay from our July 2013 print quarterly, ‘Online-istan’. See more from the issue here.)

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