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Reinventing ourselves online.

Collage by Minna

I recently saw M.I.A. give a talk at PS1 in Queens. She was there to promote her new art book, but the most interesting part of the whole two hours was when she started talking about making her latest album, Matangi. She was having writer’s block, she said, and wasn’t sure if she would even make another record. Then one day she Googled her birth name, Mathangi, and found that it belonged to a Hindu goddess of music and learning (whose mantra happens to be “aim,” which is MIA backwards, which is OMG KIND OF BANANAS). From there, she went on a web-search rampage, traveling Google’s endless vagaries and pulling ideas and thoughts off websites at random, then arranging them into a kind of mental collage that she says revealed to her “the spirituality of the internet as it happens,” which she tailored into a personal religion that suited her.

I loved that idea—the internet as our spirit world! As much grousing as people do about how Facebook and 4chan are corrupting the very soul of our society, the internet also has a kind of collective beauty and wisdom, and holds the possibility of actual soul-deep liberation. I found it super invigorating to think about the web as this place of freedom, a new realm of possibility. A place that lives and breathes. A place where we can craft our own highly individualistic religions, or curate our own worlds, or expand our creative license. A place where we can invent and reinvent ourselves anew, with as little or as much loyalty to our flesh-and-bones selves as we choose.

With great freedom, of course, comes great potential for mischief and real harm (see: the movie Catfish and the MTV show it spawned, Manti Te’o, and every awful case of cyberbullying in the news). Making up stories and characters is a kind of lying, and it can be used for good or evil. But that has always been true, and compared with all of the cool things people come up with on the internet, stories of premeditated maleficence are rare. As long as you’re not hurting anyone, or unfairly exploiting their trust, the web can be a big identity playpen—a parallel world where your avatar can be anything you want (it) to be. Basically, everyone with internet access gets to lead at least two lives now—and I think that’s awesome.

My first foray into social media was back in the Friendster days. At first, I was uncomfortable and shy about putting any kind of personal information out there for all the world to see. I was in my early 20s, and I was already IRL-visible as the music editor of an alternative weekly in Portland—where aggressive boys would not hesitate to come up to me at shows and tell me how much I sucked and how fervently they hated me. (I grew tougher as time went on, but I never really got used to it.) I felt generally and constantly vulnerable, and so I didn’t relish the thought of moving into a whole new space where I’d be open to such harassment. But all my friends were on Friendster! I didn’t want to be left out. I also didn’t want to be exposed. So I took a middle path by inventing a persona—a “fictional” character—to inhabit, which would allow me to participate in this new world while retaining some sense of personal privacy.

I called this alternate persona “DJ Skating Widow” and created a whole narrative for her. This wasn’t some kind of Catfish situation—I wasn’t trying to lure cross-country boyfriends with salacious DMs or anything. I wasn’t trying to fool anyone. I used photos of my “real” self, and Skating Widow’s profile was designed to be very obviously fake. She was an innocent young 19-year-old who had met her one true love, Todd, at horse camp, where he was a counselor. When her parents found out Skating Widow and Todd were having sex, they framed him for shoplifting to get him out of her life. It worked—he was sent to jail. While he was incarcerated, Todd and Skating Widow were married. Then he was tragically shanked during a prison fight over, as I recall, a pack of cigarettes, and passed away. From that point forward, Skating Widow’s sole purpose in life was to skateboard in Todd’s memory, and to raise awareness of that particular horse camp. My status updates were pretty elaborate, and I got so into living this alternate persona that I even did a photoshoot outside my apartment in which I wore a black lace dress and a black hat and mournfully clutched my skateboard in front of a rosebush. Everyone knew it was a lark, and some of my friends got extremely into interacting online with SW, posting their condolences and getting in on the joke. It was, I guess, an early social-media art project, and I only ended it because I eventually got bored with it, and moved on to actually blogging as Julianne.

I know it sounds crazy to you guys when your parents/teachers/mentors tell you that in Ye Olden Days people were reluctant to divulge anything about their personal lives on the internet, but back when people actually called it the World Wide Web, out loud, it really did feel dangerous to expose yourself on it. (This is why the oldskis in your life are so freaked out about your blog and your Facebook photos—they’re not being irrational, they just came up differently.) But as LiveJournal and Xanga gave way to Tumblr and Twitter, letting strangers in on parts of your actual life became normal—and now here we are, at this spot where nothing seems like TMI on the internet.

On one hand, I’m into this new transparency—it offers infinitely more chances to know how other people live. Maybe more important, it gives those of us who might feel total weirdos a way to find other people like us, so that no matter what we’re like, or what kinds of problems we might be facing, we can know, just by typing a phrase and hitting return, that we’re not alone. That’s huge. In the decade since I created DJ Skating Widow, I’ve been on every social media platform that’s lived and died—all under my real name, and with information about my life as a corporeal being. There are, of course, still things I don’t broadcast on the internet, and—obligatory WARNING TO TEENZ—they’re the same things no one should post online: my home address, my phone number, information about my finances, anything personal I wouldn’t tell a friend face to face, and (VERY IMPORTANT) any pictures of my body in any stage of undress. And I’m happier this way. Exposing my IRL identity and personality online and having nothing terrible happen as a result taught me that the world wouldn’t end if I showed people in the rest of my life who I truly am. When I was too shy to interact with 3D human beings, practicing connecting with people via the internet gave me the confidence to be open and direct with anyone, anywhere.

But I miss something about those old days, when we were so protective of our lifelong identities that we invented new, mutable ones, and built new realms for them to live in. Sure, in an obvious way that version of the internet was less “honest,” because no one was using their real name or putting every moment of our lives on front street like we do now. But the cloak of anonymity also gave us a kind of safety to express parts of ourselves that we might hide in the rest of our lives. Our second (and third, and fourth) selves might have been more true to our inner desires, thoughts, and turmoil than any confessional blog.

There are still a few places where people regularly play around with internet alter egos: In Second Life and massively multiplayer online games, you create an avatar that interacts with other people’s, and in some cases builds bonds with them that are no less “real” than any other relationship. On Twitter, clever people make parody accounts like Ivy Blue Carter and Lord Voldemort. Most of these parody personas are harmless pranks made just for entertainment purposes, like my Friendster profile. Which is why it sucks that some people use them with bad intentions. (Arizona, btw, is considering making it illegal to create a false Twitter or Facebook profile with the intent to harm.)

At its best, the internet expands and multiplies our ideas of who we can be, and that makes it extra appealing to us women and girls. So much of being female involves being told what and who we are supposed to be, or even allowed to be; transcending those limits takes a lot of work. But not on the internet. Online, we can be 12 different people and things in a single day, according to our fancy. I mean, it’s not like the web is a magical place devoid of sexism—Reddit still exists, after all—but we can avoid those sites and hang out in, or even make, places where we feel empowered. I’m hoping that some of that psychic empowerment can then transfer to our IRL lives.

We’ve effectively ended up in the world science fiction has promised us for years—a place where we’re not limited by our bodies, our physical circumstances, or our ideas of what it means to be human. So why not use this freedom to build worlds we’ve only dreamed of, and then live in them as every single thing we’ve ever wanted to be? ♦

35 Comments

  • marineo January 22nd, 2013 12:45 AM

    whenever i went on omegle i always pretended to be an 21 year old iclandic guy.
    and usually nothing came of it but one time for whatever reason i gave him this incredibly elaborate backstory about how he escaped his evil parents and was now seeing the world while being enlisted in the iclandic military.
    it was kind of invigorating, frantically clicking around, trying to make my character airtight because i’m pretty sure the person i was talking to knew i was lying…. and therefore asked all these super specific questions.

    • paige.xo January 22nd, 2013 4:58 AM

      omegle! i spend so many weekends on there making up the most elaborate personas with my friends. it was crazy.

      • lubs January 22nd, 2013 11:24 AM

        omg yes! I have various personas, but they’re always the same. There’s Sigriður, a 21 year old icelandic girl whose twin brother lives in America (they were set apart when they were born, “the parent trap’style), Gwen, a 30 year old redhead lesbian who is a fashion photographer that’s dating one of her models, Anja, and Brooke, a cheerleader that’s pregnant from the most popular boy in school. I have always created random characters for stories that I’ll never write, but in omegle they’re kind of ALIVE and that’s so, so fun!

    • GildedLocks January 22nd, 2013 9:26 AM

      Oh man. I used to use omegle to pretend to be a victorian frenchwoman trying to reconnect with her estranged lover, Jeancarlo.

    • GlitterKitty January 22nd, 2013 4:28 PM

      I hate to be a bubble-burster but Iceland doesn’t have a military. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iceland#Military

  • Chloe Elizabeth January 22nd, 2013 1:29 AM

    What DO y’all think about confessional blogs? I have a blog where I vent like hell about my recent ex-boyfriend, and I can’t decide if it’s wrong or not.

    • MaddieMae January 22nd, 2013 8:17 AM

      This might make me sound TOTALLY like a mom, but I think if I were to make a confessional blog, I would only post things about someone that I would say to that persons face. You also need to think about whether or not your ex (or whoever your writing about at any given time) is going to be humiliated by what you write for everyone to see, and whether or not your okay with his possible humiliation. Hope I’ve helped!

      http://thestrawberrythoughts.blogspot.com/

    • reginageorge January 22nd, 2013 10:50 AM

      I don’t know – is it public and do you use his real name? I mean I would hate it if an ex aired all our dirty laundry in a place everyone could find and know it was me. Like, I wouldn’t care if it was a locked blog or if it used my real name. I’d also be kind of upset if it used a fake name but was somewhere our irl friends knew about.

      So basically I don’t think it’s bad to do it, because sometimes ranting and getting advice from people outside your life can be really helpful when you’re trying to get over something. Just make sure that your friends don’t know the address (because to me it’s different, telling your bffs face to face about it than giving them the address to a blog, because sometimes friends aren’t as secret-proof as we’d like them to be and they can give that away, and then other people both of you know irl will know it’s there. Unless he was abusive, if it’s just “he forgot my birthday, he’s a loser” there’s no reason why they need to know, ya know?), and that it has a fake name… bonus points if it’s locked so only you or online friends can read it.

    • Domenic January 22nd, 2013 3:44 PM

      Oh my god they are the best!

      Like model confessions and fashion industry confessions even model personal is sort of confessional.

      Now all we need is like a blogger confessions tumblr.

      But does anybody read your ex boyfriend rant?

  • Jasmine January 22nd, 2013 2:13 AM

    Just the other day, as I followed link after link from Rookie and Tumblr, I found myself Googling and discovering an amazing artist that I had never even known about and reading about all sorts of new and rad feminist activism taking place!
    This happens to me all the time and I find myself truly appreciating the “World Wide Web” and all its glory because I am privy to so many amazing things that I would’ve probably never discovered in my life.

  • pohtaytoe January 22nd, 2013 2:40 AM

    i love this!!

  • OH NO January 22nd, 2013 3:22 AM

    Word to this article: the internet — particularly the parts of the internet that allow a user to generate alternate identities — can be an incredibly liberating and beautiful space.

    I worry, though, that women of my (our) generation use the alternate identities that are made available to them by internet platforms to avoid the (sometimes much harder) work of generating complete, adult IRL identities. In some ways, the stylized self-presentation that is made available by sites like Tumblr offers not just an agumentation or addition, but a very tempting substitute, to the necessity of generating intimacy and healthy self-conceptions in the parts of a young lady’s life that don’t happen online.

    CASE IN POINT! Everybody should really check out the work of LA-based artist Kate Durbin, who makes art about and for girls on the internet:
    http://womenasobjects.tumblr.com/

    • reginageorge January 22nd, 2013 10:53 AM

      I completely agree, it shouldn’t take over your life in a way that stops being therapeutic and starts being counterproductive to you feeling better and having a good life. Like, everyone naturally tries to present only the interesting bits in their lives and that’s ok but it’s really important to remember that it’s ok if you’re a real human being offline.

  • reddithandleistaken January 22nd, 2013 5:21 AM

    Generalising reddit as sexist is understandable, as the amount of misogynism, racism, and rape apologism on there can alarm a casual observer, but I think it trivialises the amount of awesomeness which it there too (shoutout to /r/twoxchromosones, /r/teenagers and /r/askscience/historians, you guys are great!)

    There will be jerks in any online community, just as there will be amazing people.

    • reginageorge January 22nd, 2013 10:56 AM

      Ugh I kind of wish I could properly like reddit but I’ve heard so many horror stories about it, like how aside from a couple of subreddits it’s really misogynistic and how the site administration is cool with things like racist comments and “man’s rights” groups. That freaks me out a lot, I don’t want to want to have to figure out where it’s safe to step to avoid a landmine and knowing that other users in such close proximity can come in at any time and make upsetting comments. :/ Reddit is also really weird to me, call me old but I prefer blogs and old timey forums.

    • cellogrrrl January 22nd, 2013 1:56 PM

      Plus there’s r/feminisms, r/Feminism and r/WhereAreTheFeminists!
      Like any community, reddit is a mix of people, many of whom can have dissenting opinions. Some of these people are racist. Some are sexist. Some are unacceptable. That does not condemn the whole website as some sort of giant internet sinkhole.
      Reddit is a great resource and the niche communities can help people find out about others who share their interests. It bothered me that this article was so quick to condemn it.

  • Abby January 22nd, 2013 9:00 AM

    Guys, there are two reasons this is the best article. One, it’s a really good article. Two, it made me aware that Lord Voldemort has a twitter, which I just scrolled through for probably 30 minutes. Even though I don’t even have a twitter. Whatever. Off to the first day of classes now.

  • reginageorge January 22nd, 2013 11:01 AM

    I really like this article! You know what would be cool? If we did a collective experiment in creating personas and blogging as them. Would anyone like to do this with me? Say yes!

    By the way, something this article reminds me of are stories about people blogging as someone they’re not in a way that can be hurtful even if unintentionally, like blogging as a POC when you’re white to use your character as a mouthpiece for your views. That just ends up silencing people who really do experience racism irl.

  • enthusiastictruckdriver January 22nd, 2013 1:22 PM

    While I don’t enjoy making up whole new scenarios about myself on the Internet, I certainly enjoy the freedom of expressing myself and showing the part of myself that I actually love. There are times thatTjere aer a lot of qualities that I would love to have, but am still developing–confidence, the ability to dress differently without worrying what other people think, kindness to name a few. While at school, I may seem like a perpetually bitchfaced shy kid who wears jeans and t-shirts all the time, the Internet allows me to reveal a slightly better version of me, perhaps a more faithful one–the version of me that wears what she wants and isn’t too shy to defend her opinion. In many ways, the Internet has helped me become the kind of person I want to be.

  • IndigoJo January 22nd, 2013 2:34 PM

    I started playing an online mmorpg for the first time in September, and I still find it confusing how little people mention their real lives while online – I only know people’s account and character names, no one mentions their real names, and I have no idea how old anyone is except for the occasional throw away comment about homework from a couple of people. Knowing absolutely nothing about someone’s real life and situation puts me a bit on edge, but I am trying to get used to the mentality that people seem to have of their in game character being the only persona required.

  • Jeanne January 22nd, 2013 3:12 PM

    I must say that past year i’ve been on the internet about 1h30 a day, reading blogs, watching videos, posting things, reading The Guardian, disovering tons of cool things etc. This is very time consuming, but everything looks cool! People seem to be interesting and are like you. You hear that tons of events are going on where you want to be, people post pictures with their amazing outfits and all the cool stuff they own. But when you close your computer and think of something you can do in your “boring” life, you’re discouraged, because in the first sight your life isn’t as it should be, because you don’t do and own all the cool blogstuff.
    What i’m saying is that when people create the digital version of themselves, they only show their good qualities and all the good things they’ve done. That seems logic, but it’s unhuman. NOBODY’S PERFECT (haha that reminds me of the end of Some Like It Hot! and that Hannah Montana-song…)
    So when you’re discouraged by the internet beause your life seems so boring, try to close your computer, forget all you’ve read, and have some 3D fun!

    http://www.teenbadger.blogspot.com

    • Domenic January 22nd, 2013 3:48 PM

      That’s correct. It’s like I may in fact take a picture in this abandoned place wearing this really cool designer thang (actually really marked down because I can’t afford full price things ever) but like in reality it’s just like a bunch of suburban homes-

      and the reason I’m taking the pictures in the first place is because I have seen somebody take cool edgy avant garde photos in an abandoned place anyway!

      See the internet can be a “cool” religion and I like to think of it that way.

  • Runaway January 22nd, 2013 3:14 PM

    The whole story of DJ Skating Widow sounds so cool. I had to say it.

  • Domenic January 22nd, 2013 3:51 PM

    I personally find it weird when old people can use facebook really well.

    Though my only experience of that is like gay guys who use it to look up their man hunt crushes.. Random but I do it too to avoid being held up at gun point etc.

  • Narnia January 22nd, 2013 4:22 PM

    The internet helped me find people who liked the same things I do because I havent found anyone really irl that has the same interests. Even my best friend and I dont like the same things (although I love her nonetheless) i.e. does anyone follow weneedtotalkaboutezramiller? that church community saved and ruined my life. i joined there and became an avid churchgoer after something really devasting and used it as a means of cartharasis(?) It became an obsession, virtually disintegrating 3D life and my irl connections. I feel really guilty about it all.Im only now regaining my 3D self.

    • silvermist January 22nd, 2013 6:07 PM

      I can relate to this. First year of university i totally screwed up my exams because I was staying up late (sometimes till morning – time zones yay!) reading theories in a forum about how these two actresses were actually together even though they both had a bf at that time. It was addicting because there was always something new to dissect: new tweets! a new insider! (how could I believe there were so many ‘insiders’ though?) a new picture someone found from 5 years ago! and then it was 6 am and I had an exam at 8.

  • koalabears January 22nd, 2013 5:17 PM

    This reminds me of Serial Experiments Lain.

  • cvalda January 22nd, 2013 5:36 PM

    This would actually be a brilliant tool for character development. If you’re a writer, trying to develop a “real” character, creating a Facebook page for them and interacting with people as them could be really beneficial. Thanks for the inspiration!

  • silvermist January 22nd, 2013 5:47 PM

    Loved this post! This reminded me how much I used to enjoy role-playing in the internet. I used to go to these forums where you create a character and then use a celebrity as their face claim and then interact with the other characters. And before that I was part of this community where each one had a blog for their character and there was a main blog and we talked in group conversations about plots and etc. I was never the most involved or anything but it was still fun.

  • Charlotte January 23rd, 2013 4:30 AM

    This is my favorite, favorite idea, and is probably going to be my concentration in college. A similar idea and a book that I reccomend to everyone interested in this is scientist and feminist theorist Donna Haraway’s “The Cyborg Manifesto”. It is seriously one of the most interesting and revolutionary books about both technology and feminist/gender theory that I have come across, and cemented Haraway as one of my science-y feminist heroes (also on that list: Margaret Atwood and Anna Anthropy). I especially think that “The Cyborg Manifesto” is relevant to feminists, who, like myself, are growing up in the so-called digital age. READ IT!!!!

  • asylum January 23rd, 2013 9:32 AM

    I love M.I.A <3

    http://this-asylum.blogspot.in/

  • Bumblecake January 23rd, 2013 11:52 AM

    This is SO TRUE! I created a twitter profile called Summer Levitt like Summer from 500 days of summer and joseph gordon levitt! I love the fact people can be whoever they want ( for positive purposes – I have to admit I’m not a fan of the creeps who perv on young girls and boys and such.) But alter egos make for excellent story telling!

    E.g. my name isn’t even Frankie Simone , and people like Gala Darling change their name to suit them it’s so brilliant!

    http://www.frankiesimone.blogspot.com

  • eliselbv January 24th, 2013 2:59 PM

    M.I.A is just the best !
    I hated her songs two years ago (except for paper plane) and then I read things about her, her life and her songs started to mean something and I ended up loving them!

  • eliselbv January 24th, 2013 3:08 PM

    PS: I still think it can be dangerous to expose things on the World Wild Web! Because we are young doesn’t mean we are unconscious :)

  • Cutesycreator aka Monica June 2nd, 2013 9:22 AM

    The internet <3