A Norman Rockwell painting from 1995: You can almost hear the modem connecting over the course of 90 screeching, howling seconds. A man’s back is framed by a desk chair—because he’s at a desk, the only place he can use his computer, a 16-pound beige rectangular desktop model with a loud fan that has three plugs connecting it to various electronic conduits. The person is alternately posting on a message board and trolling a chat room under an assumed name, and probably an assumed age, sex, and/or location. There is safety in the scenery of this painting: the basset hound curled under the desk, the tapping of fingers on keys, the fantasy of being Petunia, 18 years old, from Princeton, N.J., when in fact the person at the desk is really Robert, 49, from North Hollywood.
In 1995, this scenario might have seemed nightmarish, the clash of reality against an imaginary world of our own creation, the fact that Petunia wasn’t actually Petunia. Now, I think it seems quaint, even exciting—as long as Petunia isn’t planning to abduct anyone or engage in sexual instant messages with a tween. Like most things that become emotionally valuable only when they’ve receded into the distance, I admire Petunia for helping to build an alternate internet reality. Her existence, concurrent with Robert’s, foils the equation that currently condenses every individual with a wi-fi connection into a dossier of marketing data: a brand. Conversations about the internet in this age were marked by distrust, not of the internet itself, but of the shady portion of its population and the possibility of multiple identities used nefariously: A 1996 New York Times article dealing with a specific and horrific crime of sexual abuse and torture called the incident “an example of the growing number of criminals roving the internet in hopes of gaining the trust of unsuspecting victims.” Another Times piece from the previous year quotes James Gleick, founder of early-internet service The Pipeline, on AOL’s screen-name policy: “They are encouraging outlaws by letting people run around with pseudonyms.” That’s probably why being who you say you are is a cornerstone of what many people consider responsible World Wide Web usage, though it carries with it its own set of problems and worries, tricking us into believing that we’re as safe as the dog sleeping under the desk. We’re not.
Transparency on the internet is generally accepted to be an honest and somewhat responsible tack; from social networking to the ability to Google any person or underground band in existence (any hot dog stand or dentist, any potential date or non-profit organization), our physical selves are validated by their online reflections. A few months ago, a friend was asked out on a date by a man whose name yielded no recognizable Google match; though surely it’s possible to exist actually without existing virtually, my first thought was, Hey, that guy’s not real. And you know what? He wasn’t. Well, he was real, but he wasn’t who he said he was, and in life (and particularly on dates) this is generally looked down upon. In this case, the heartless algorithm that takes note of what you do, who you are, and where you live had worked in our favor (my friend passed on a second date). That is not always so, and whether the algorithm punishes or rewards us is unpredictable—we don’t know where this is all going, this growing document of our wheres and what-have-yous, and even back when Prodigy message boards were the beginning and end of your plugged-in session, there was a tingle of fear that something of yours would be framed and mounted on the wall of the internet for posterity and you wouldn’t want it there. And just as often, the internet can offer book deals, diagnose illnesses, or locate that baby you gave up for adoption 20 years ago.
But back to honesty: What if the future of the internet isn’t that we’ll have more of it, but—uh-oh—less?
4chan is the scariest, and in some ways the most powerful, room in the internet mall. It purges itself to remain relatively archive-less, its users thrive on anonymity; it’s firmly placed in a temporal universe at odds with the phrase (and Criminal Minds episode), usually whispered paranoiacally, that “the internet is forever.” Besides the obvious fear of seeing a 4chan referral in your Google Analytics report and being unable to trace it, the perception of 4chan as a menacing force comes more from the fear that their estimation of the internet’s purpose (e.g., fun, entertainment, and a pop-art consume-and-destroy sensibility) doesn’t align with mainstream beliefs (e.g., your photos, your Foursquare check-ins, constant affirmations that you are who you say you are). 4chan challenges the benefits of creating an online persona or brand, and they’re right to; the internet was built from cinderblocks of porn and piracy—basic human fun, not the pages of Emily Post. A useful tool that handles your bills and tracks your Domino’s pizza order still bombards you with talking pop-up ads, trolls appearing to be casually racist or aggressively hateful, even during a bleak and business-like discussion of where to find a good mechanic. We’ve never been given a reason to trust the internet with our most trembling secrets, social security numbers and overshares and $50 million reputations (Facebook’s corporate transparency blunders being an example), but we really, really want to. It would be convenient and it would reaffirm our basic human need to trust other people, as a large and faceless group with a tender touch and good manners, not to mention making us seem interesting enough as ourselves with no embellishments.
Anonymity is used as a way to stick your finger in a pot of something to see if it changes the flavor without taking responsibility for doing so. But this is where it gets sticky, because as anyone who has ever reached the proverbial “end of the internet” knows, watching people be themselves on their blogs and status updates gets boring, especially as we’re learning that writing after two martinis and a bad breakup can come back to haunt you: Increasingly, we edit ourselves (sometimes we don’t, but most oversharers I’ve known—including myself—have learned to), and the finer the mesh of the web’s net, the more of you it catches and disperses into far-flung corners. The internet is learning newer, better, and faster ways to gain an accurate picture of you, and it’s beginning to more effectively monetize this information. Again: not necessarily an evil thing for an often opinionless tool to be up to, and not necessarily damaging to you, but there should be an alternative to this. The alternative will appear when those of us who create content stop life-casting as singular, identifiable identities, and start dividing like an embryo into plural selves, taking turns with our check-ins, disagreeing with each other politically, creating a virtual privacy sign to place on the doorknobs of our lives.
Today, anonymous commenters are a source of fear among those of us who exist online under our own names. As soon as someone strips their name from something they’d like to say, you realize why: They would like to be nasty to you, or politically incorrect to the point of alienating absolutely everyone, or otherwise say something that would tarnish their own online brand. While there are nasty commenters who love to draw attention using their own names, I think of these people as super-nutso sociopaths and I don’t factor sociopaths into my shoe-gazing theories about human nature. For the most part, anonymity is used as a way to stick your finger in a pot of something to see if it changes the flavor without taking responsibility for doing so.
There’s a thrill to it, taking the opportunity to go undercover when it feels as though you’re breaking the unwritten code of web transparency, but there could be a bigger thrill: creating a cadre of anonymous personas, not with the intent of using them as heckle-puppets or comment trolls, definitely not using them to seduce strangers into dark sedans or wreak general havoc, but to devise a much more creative and fractured experience for yourself online. It is strange that the web, which in every way attempts to cater to the fantasies of its audience (we’re drooling at your photos of dinner at Momofuku, watching six-hour marathons of television shows that we would never admit to our TiVos that we enjoy, airbrushing our profile pictures), would ask us to be so honest about which coffee shops we frequent enough to earn a mayor badge or how we look on any given Wednesday. It’s nice because it fosters trust, but it’s a shame because there are so many other options that we’re being steered away from, partially because we like to guide our networks (people who actually know us, people who feel like they know us because we’ve shared so much of ourselves with them) towards things like our band’s concerts, our essays, our books, our plays and our birthday parties (and additionally because not everyone’s playing by the open-book, be-yourself rules). This is an obvious negative of a false persona: It arrives friendless and nascent, it doesn’t want a Facebook, and it is unrecognizable at the grocery store or at parties. It’s unable to promote itself. Starting over can be daunting, when your rebirth is as a fake adult who doesn’t know anybody. But starting over can feel so good. It’s like exfoliating.
Vulnerability attracts vultures: anonymous, sociopathic, or just reasonable people who stumble across our mistakes and feel the need to say, “Hey, stupid post.” At present, I know of three fake online personas who write essays from the perspective of another gender, and one dead persona who wrote from the same gender, but without ambition (that’s why she died; she was the only persona for which I was responsible). I’m not talking about just a fake byline or handle, but a fake backstory and appearance, an invented sense of humor and eagerness to use phrases that make the actual author’s skin crawl. As far as I know, the public at large isn’t aware of the true identity of these personas, which is the point; these alter-egos write freely about emotional devastation, drug use and breakups, and none of it is false (I imagine), but the small fictions that punctuate the actual truths make these essays and articles a leaky bucket when it comes to carrying the real writer’s liquid reputation, which is also the point. Writing, and especially blogging, with a fake ID lends itself to revealing things that we now know are too touchy for electronic print, sort of like how Norman Mailer’s 1965 novel An American Dream revealed Mailer’s actual violent and misogynistic impulses without getting into what happened when he stabbed his wife with a penknife at a dinner party; the best thing about overshares is that they encapsulate the extreme moments of life when we’re at our worst or most despairing (and that people are entertained by and relate to these moments; surely these are the moments when you feel as though you understand the author, when you feel that loaded sense of connection to a stranger), but the worst part is that we have to live with them forever, tacked onto our “brand” even when we’ve evolved past that dark moment. There is no room for imagination or murky gray-area truths in a totally transparent context, and, worse, that kind of vulnerability attracts vultures: anonymous, sociopathic, or just reasonable people who stumble across our mistakes and feel the need to say, “Hey, stupid post.”
Imagine Robert/Petunia again, from what now feels like an even more ancient 1995, as two people: Robert has a Facebook now, and a fairly bland profile, if I do say so myself. He has a job and a family and double-you-double-you-double-you-dot-Robert-dot-com is a vanilla space, highly edited and watered down and, well, safe. But Robert has been posting his essays as Petunia Shunklepuss, and those are colorful indeed: Petunia lived out Robert’s fantasy of being a derelict Parisian prostitute, and in her uninhibited recollections of her time shooting heroin by the Seine, we see glimpses of Robert’s most private regrets and fears. He’s also Bann Hertzvog, haunting the mysterious medical ailment boards and hair loss discussions, and when he gets his answers, he vanishes and becomes something else without signing up for the mailing list. All of the different Roberts, Roberts-through-a-prism, cohabitating in a way that stumps the algorithm: “Who is Robert?” you ask Google, and Google hands over what a machine can, one personal-pan sized profile, nothing more—none of the interesting or secret parts of Robert, nothing experimental, just the same glimpse of him you’d get from three-quarters of a pint of beer or a speed date between buzzers.
Being yourself all of the time is the opposite of a fantasy, and the you that sits and walks and talks is not necessarily the you that types in a dark room, silent, nervous as you decide whether to hit “publish” and then decide to because you really liked one of your metaphors. The web is not an office tower, it’s Disneyland; it’s the love child of Nicolas Cage’s brain and Andy Warhol’s ghost. There are no actual rules, but suggestions of decorum so as to make the algorithm most efficient, the picture it produces of you the clearest. 4chan doesn’t respect the algorithm, and, sometimes, neither should we. There is a time and place to be yourself, a well-edited human who sometimes types his or her mind’s contents into the abyss; there’s also room for what you almost said, for what you almost let yourself think, for what you imagine for yourself and the experiences that pulverize you so that your bones turn to jelly and you slide down the drain. A little mystery can change the flavor of the whole casserole, and you won’t see it reflected in your Facebook ads; I want to know what happened when you paced on the Brooklyn Bridge one dark winter evening. I don’t have to look you in the eye afterwards; maybe it’s better if it was both you, and not you.
I’ll see you in another internet, when we are both cats.