Who want to be stuck with who they are the whole time?

Nick Hornby’s comment in Fever Pitch about the dangerous excitement of being seen as a teenage football hooligan on Saturday afternoons, when the rest of the week he lived a well behaved and humdrum life, strikes a chord with anyone who writes – or reads.

There is an American children’s book called Harold’s Magic Crayon in which a toddler draws lines that become reality. The crayon is – of course – purple.

Authors writing fiction as omniscient narrators are the gods of their own worlds – which often become stranger and more various in the process of writing. Few start with a plan or a story frame beyond the basics of a character and a dilemma which sets a puzzle to be solved – or at least explored. Having a worked out beginning, middle and end before starting – like Michael Heseltine’s life plan – would be to set limits before the start. Life, as Heseltine found out – isn’t like that. The point is the exploration; not the target.

Authors writing in the first person are trying out different identities – which are different possible versions of themselves – or an attempt to get beyond themselves – to try to inhabit a different skin in a different life in a different place.

When we write, we are more thought out and considered than when we speak. A more literate, well referenced version of ourselves. All the insights we pick up then think through, can be backdated as though they were spontaneous. “You – only better” as the American plastic surgery adverts used to put it.

This capacity to live as though we were someone else through fiction is given an additional spin by the existence of alternative online universes wherein people can “live” as souped up avatars. In its simplest form this can be as one character in a series of scenarios combining problem solving with fighting in an endless series of encounters in which you – as your character – are in permanent peril, but with an eternal capacity to be reborn after death and start again. “Life” in these contexts as a series of rehearsals for getting it right one day – Groundhog Day with a mouse – before moving on up to the next level to be “the best that you can be” – within the confines of a game designer’s universe.

The question we might want to think about is to what extent the pay offs that we get from these games – or engagement with social media as such – becomes a more exciting substitute for the messy humdrum realities of real lived sensuous experience – especially if we feel the need to live through an avatar – possible as an on screen Ninja, but not when pulling a shopping trolley to Asda on a rainy Tuesday.

The extent to which the players of the game identify with their character as the way they would like the world to see them spills over into online communication when there is no direct contact. Dating profiles are an obvious form of this.

Loneliness – and a sense the the person you are is not someone anyone else would want – can lead to catfishing – another attempt to explore possibilities and get genuine feedback as a fictionalised version of yourself – or as someone you’d like to be. The paradox of this is that the genuine emotions behind this can connect beneath the subterfuge.

The phenomena of the online political troll is another. President Bolsonaro of Brazil was elected last October on a tidal wave of online disinformation about his opponent co-ordinated by allies of Steve Bannon. His rapidly collapsing popularity indicates that a quickly inflated bubble of bullshit doesn’t necessarily last, but is all it takes in the short term and, in an election, that’s all it takes. In any forthcoming election, be prepared for online broadsides of dead cats.

The slew of stories about Russian intelligence having a big online operation and intervening in political debates in other countries – as though this is the kind of contemptible thing that only the Russians would do –  has had a quieter counterpoint in admissions that all intelligence agencies are at it. One intelligence operator sitting in an office in Moscow, or GCHQ, or the NSA HQ, can be running up to a dozen assumed identities at one time. They will not simply be intervening overseas, but also at home.  They are almost certainly very busy people.

The revelation that at least ten profiles of people posting anti-semitic abuse while claiming to be supporters of Jeremy Corbyn were completely fake – fake names, fake photos – poses a serious question. Who would have an interest in providing false evidence of “far left anti-semitism” while hyping up the tensions inside a party that the powers that be in this country are desperate to keep out of office? This is adopting a caricature persona – a virtual straw man for others to knock over – as a job.

While it is only natural that debates about important issues spark strong emotions – the mutual hostility generated by abusive posts is an end in itself for those who want to sew the seeds of rancor. No one engaged in debate forums should assume that anyone unknown is necessarily a real person. Reflecting that the aim of trolls is to hype up debate so that responses are irrational or abusive underlines the importance of being polite – not rising to provocation – and using facts.

Such debates can become very absorbing – even obsessive – as the desire to find coherent narratives is how we create meaning for ourselves. I argue, therefore I am.

The dominance of social media in our lives now – and the highly manipulative Apps that drive us when we are on it – gives rise to the disturbing thought that real life is becoming relegated to the things that we do to sustain us while we are waiting to get ourselves connected in this extraordinarily alienated way.





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