Monday, July 20, 2009

Anonymity, Safe Space, and Other Frontiers of Modern Existance

Warning: Much random thought follows. Not sure if it all comes together in the end.

There's been a bit of a kerfuffle at Duff's SW blog over the last two weeks, owing in part to what is largely a poorly worded gauntlet-throw by our busy author and, well, generalized internet obnoxiousness. There is also a bit of a punk rock debate intermixed, but we'll leave that alone for's a separate issue, though, I grant, one of my personal favorites.

The debate is largely over the condition of anonymity on the internet and how we use it.

Duff's initial reaction appears to have been against commenters who post anonymously, trashing bands and so forth (and, presumably, the truly irritating set who insist on making repulsive remarks about his family--when is this ever necessary??). More precisely, he remarked that people should use their own names. Rightly or wrongly, it inspired scores of his readers to start posting under their own names or connecting their RL names to their online aliases (and, often, the particular ones used at the Loaded site). It seemed to me at the time that he was being reactionary--exactly to what I've not been able to discern (who gives an damn if an anonymous user trashes Green Day or whichever other band is mentioned--band trashing may not be any more conversationally useful than any other form of such behavior, after all), but clearly responding against something that bothered him immensely. Fair enough--his blog, his rules.

This blog is nominally anonymous, in so far as I don't provide my name, but most readers know me personally or I self-disclose by, for instance, directing my students here to read up on explications or some other old post. Yes, I realize that they can read the more personal information, and, truthfully, that's fine with me. I'd rather that they know I am human; I hope that the struggles recounted here could be of help to someone else--a student, a friend, a doesn't matter and I don't even need to know, but I would like to think that occasionally this blog can stand as a reminder that someone else is out there, walking a similar road.

As it happens, I already use my RL name in the comment section of Duff's blog. This was a big deal for me at the time I begain posting (I felt so exposed), and, since I link back to these pages, it doesn't take much effort to get my first name.

I use an internet alias here, one I've used over the course of a decade or better, and I seldom post pictures that would identify me, though this is more of a "I hate pictures of myself" problem than a "oh noes they mights figures mes outs*" problem, so I thought I would bite the bullet and share one with you today.

Helpful, isn't it?

This gem, as the shirt suggests, is about 20 years old. I'm not sure how old I was...between 13 & 15, I would imagine, but barring any other identifiers, I can't be sure. Since it wasn't in my room, the posters don't help either, though, truth be told, I probably had many of the same ones back at Chez Kitsch. Oh, and, no, I haven't the slightest idea why I have my hair (OMG--look at all that hair! And the grin. Wow...I used to grin???? See it?) over my was likely a Cousin Itt impersonation, but I might have been trying for Slash, though the photographer could do a waaaaay better Slash than me. But, you know, that picture is a pretty good summation of me: T-shirt, goofy hair, and late-80s music--->me in a nutshell (heck, even now). Anyone who knew me then and still remembers me well enough could easily identify that pic as me, I feel certain. The Duke shirt alone would be a significant tell; if the Duke sweatpants (which I am no doubt wearing) were visible, those too would be a giveaway, I wore them so very often, to the immense annoyance of Tarheels fans I grew up with.

But, I don't expect that people remember me. In fact, that is one of the operating premises of my life. I assume that I'm easily forgotten and of such little consequence that there is never any reason to assume otherwise, so I am caught surprised when people do remember me. So, the anonymity here is also an outgrowth of my standard operating procedure--I generally assume that I am anonymous--more or less--in my everyday life, so it seemed easiest to continue that feeling in the online environment. Thus, the exposure I felt when I first put my name on Duff's comment section; I'm used to a relative amount (however false it may be) of anonymity and to choose to violate that was quite scary.

Another commenter at Shakesville noted recently that she uses her real name when commenting there because she spent so much time hiding and dishonest in her alcoholic days, and I can understand where she is coming from there, too. In fact, when I read that comment, I was a bit stunned. It felt incredibly authentic, something I aspire to, but often mishandle. Authenticity was not why I used my RL name on Duff's blog (I guess); I'm not sure why I did, in truth. All I know is that it felt right at the time, whereas other spaces seem to call for one of my two favorite Internet aliases.**

In the picture above, I was as much myself as any young teen is capable of being--in my best friend's bedroom, goofing off and grinning (just trust me--it's there). I was in the safest of spaces--in the presence of someone I trusted entirely, who, in myriad ways, granted me permission to be whomever I needed to be at that time and space, as I searched for who I would be in the great someday. I think I was perhaps at my most authentic in that moment--goofy, laughing, wanting to be the center of attention, but hiding from the fact of the attention.

Such authenticity is harder to come by now. I've tried to be so many different people, according to the places and times and the demands that are made (or the demands I interpret, which may or may not actually be there). Such is the fact of human existence, of course--we all codeswitch. Many people are forced to live in a private hell for the comfort of others--to violate their authentic selves, lest they be shunned publicly, rather than just privately. Imagine living a life that forces contraction--forces fragmentation beyond the codeswitching we all live within.

Got the pain there? That's empathy. Use it judiciously before going on the attack.

It's funny how often we authenticate our aliases--give the stories behind them, mention how long we've used them (as I did above) and in what contexts. These aliases become a part of our authentic selves, should we use them long and carefully enough. The fragments we create in the aliases initially may bind and reform and reshape us as we grow and change online and off.

The online communities in which we live an participate offer us the possibility of expanded communities, greater empathy, and more opportunities to critically examine HOW we can be authentic, regardless of place, space, or time. The trick is, though, not to lose site of the opportunities by turning the comments into a free-for-all (which is what seems to happen, more often than not). Rather than using aliases as ways of naming ourselves and staking a claim for our selves, we too often use the anonymity to become self-righteous and thoughtless. How much better if we used the "second lives" we can share online to expand, rather than contract and attack. We turn the comment sections of newspapers and blogs into...well, how often do you "avoid reading the comments" because you know how awful they will be (I don't for instance, read comments in newspapers, lest I send myself around the bend)?

Duff made a mistake here: he unintentionally pulled a great big guilt trigger on a number of regular readers and commenters, which bothers me more than I can articulate. Within a few minutes, people began posting first and last names, etc., in order to...what...appease him? It's a peculiar trade-off that I've seen on a number of high-readership blogs; commenters forge a community of sorts--sometimes deliberately and other times just by the circumstance of participating together regularly. The blogger, however, operates in a special zone in the community, which will tend to bend to his or her will or outright reject it. A study of this habit in miniature can be seen in the comments from the blog in the week preceding the one linked above.

I don't believe that he intended such a response--he's never struck me as that sort of manipulator (even if he is a youngest child *grin*), but the revelations--the exposure of names--happened nonetheless, even by people who were offended by the remark that commenters should reveal more than he or she may be comfortable with*** the nebulous truth of their names. I *think* (see previous remarks on understanding one's hero vs. taking wild guesses, the latter of which is really what I am doing) he was merely getting at avoiding bad behavior and generalized obnoxiousness--to quote Fred Clark (again): "[s]imply follow the Golden Rule because it will protect you from becoming a gaping asshole."

When we enter a blog, we enter what can be a safe space for sharing, reflection, thinking, and, yes, humor at one an other's expense. We are invited to enter someone's thoughts--a fragment of their own self--and we should respect that. His blog; his rules. But, we should, I think, find ways to encourage each other's growth and voice--help each of us find our inner goofy kid, hiding behind her hair, hoping to be noticed and terrified that she might be, grinning and laughing. Damn, we'd be so much happier if we all got a little goofy together, rather than taking offense, going on the attack, and generally engaging in gaping assholery.

*Props to K. for providing proper Internetz speak here. I'm not yet conversational in the dialect, though I feel competent in my reading ability of such.

**solitarykitsch (of course) and, well, suffice to say that the other involves a long story and Trixter.

***The more I thought about that phrasing, the more wrong it seemed--he never asked for giving beyond comfort per se, though people certainly took it that way.

1 comment: