Three years ago, the American journalist Virginia Heffernan published an article entitled Why I’m A Creationist, which was pretty much what it sounds like. (“In New York City,” she wrote, that’s “like confessing you think Ahmadinejad has a couple of good points.”) As a strategy for making the internet hate her, it was effective: Heffernan enraged every atheist with a broadband connection, and earned the Twitter hashtag #WorseThanIsis. It was a terrible few days for her. Or not her, exactly, as she explained in a recent interview about her excellent new book, Magic And Loss: The Internet As Art. “Once I realised that @page88 [her Twitter identity] was having a freaking hard time… [I decided] that battle would have to be fought in this other world,” she said. “I happened to be in Florida with my cousins, so I decided that me, in this body, was going to have a good day.” She left @page88 to absorb the blows, and disengaged.
Whatever your views on clickbait, creationism or winding up atheists, this strikes me as a splendidly healthy way to approach life online: let your online persona take the criticism, while you get on with living. We tend to think of the gap between our identities on and off the internet as a bad thing, and it often is: the“online disinhibition effect”is what enables your mild-mannered neighbour to become a hate-spewing bigot on social media, where the usual rules don’t seem to apply. But this same distance can be used as a defence against cyberbullies. You can attack my online persona, Heffernan seemed to be saying – but you can’t force me to think of that persona as me. That’s no antidote to the worst online abuse, obviously; a death threat’s still a death threat. But it’s a reminder that we retain some choice when it comes to how far we identify with our public selves.
The truly famous have long understood that the only way to stay sane is to remember you aren’t the image others worship. (“Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant,” said Cary Grant.) But something funny has happened to fame. Thanks to the ease of publishing your thoughts and images online, almost everyone has a little. Yet most of us haven’t developed the corresponding fame-management skills. We’re stung by insults that wouldn’t register with George Clooney. Or we take our personas too seriously. More than once, I’ve caught myself thinking I ought to weigh in about a major news event, as if Twitter were waiting on tenterhooks for my views.
Not that this began with the web. Every sociology student knows Erving Goffman’s theory that all social interactions involve roleplay, whether because we try to hide our true selves (say the Freudians), or because we don’t have any (say the Buddhists). Either way, it’s a relief to remember you can mentally step away from those roles, as Heffernan did in Florida. Take right now. By reading this, you’re interacting with “me”. But me me? If things have gone according to plan, I’m in a self-catering cottage for the weekend. Leave me out of it.
Jul 22, 2016