07 April 2001

"Be what you would seem to be --
or, never imagine yourself to be otherwise
than what it might appear to others
that what you were or might have been
was not otherwsie than what you had been
would have appeared to them to be otherwise."
   - Lewis Carroll

For the faint of heart who can't bring themselves to slog through the subjunctives above, it's not to worry. I'm thinking about online identity today. Specifically, I'm thinking about how easy it is to assume an identity, attributes, and characteristics one might not have in the real world.

Who hasn't heard the horror stories about dirty old men hanging around children's chat rooms, hoping to make meaningful contact with pre-teens by assuming the mask of somebody known as "Jingles," or "LittleBoyBlue?" Or the middle-aged women tarting themselves up online for hot young studs, parading themselves around as nubile, pneumatic young things, just itching for...well, let's just say, they're looking for someone to scratch what itches them?

But the masquerade isn't just about sex, it seems. Entering a forum for discussing anything is "truth optional." People leave their humdrum routines and mediocre credentials at the doors, assuming plumage they've not earned the right to wear. The posturing can produce some interesting results on occasion. In a forum for aspiring writers, a flame war recently erupted when an interloper appeared. The invader took the time to check out the various offerings from the forum members, then showed up in the main forum and announced, "You are deluding yourselves. You lack talent, wit, imagination, and skill at writing. You flatter yourselves unduly, and you ought to take a look at the world of writing more closely."

The collective membership went crazy, leaping to their cyber-feet instantly, posting wild, heated invective, casting aspersions against the interloper, who, truth be told, didn't show a great deal of common sense, having ignited the flames and then remaining to be roasted by them. Person after person posted, "You don't know what you're talking about," in response to the critic. This back and forth began escalating, until finally one poster, a member who was clearly a leader in the writing forum, well respected for his opinions and his style, challenged the interloper directly.

"What gives you the right to say such things to us? Who are you, to tell us we don't write too good? If your such a grate writer," he wrote, "then surely you could do better than tell us we are no good. I have a doctoral in grammar science, and you made mistakes in speling and punctuation all over your pitiful posts. You, sir, are a fraud and a bad person, to say the things you did." He went on for several paragraphs in this gist, until he finally ran out of steam and topped. He received acclaim from the other members for having put the interloper "in his place" with the elegance of his arguments.

Mr. Pot, please meet my friend, Doctor Kettle. Notwithstanding I think this man meant to say "doctoral degree," the spelling and grammatical errors peppering his post belied his assertion. I wonder if there is such a thing as a doctoral degree in grammar science. Now there's a scary thought. 

The interloper gave up his battle, and went off to wage war elsewhere, presumably with men and women who were willing to consider him a fair judge of good or bad writing.

But really, who's to say whether the writing was good or bad? Out in the cyberworld, each person has the ability to invent himself (or herself) with every word, with every image.

Out in the cyberworld, all the wolves wear shearling coats.

Excuse me. I have to get "baah-ah-ah-ck" online.


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