Not an Odalisque

Posts Tagged ‘social networking

Do You Know Who I Am?

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We all know that the internet is not a space conducive to anonymity. We are being watched. The state is looking for people involved in terrorism, child pornography, file sharing and probably the avoidance of parking fines. Advertisers want to learn about us so that they can sell us things more successfully, although I can hardly say that they do it very effectively, since Facebook seems to think that I am an overweight lesbian primary school teacher in need of several new mobile phones. Nevertheless, an impression of anonymity tends to persist. ‘The Psychology of the Internet’ by Patricia Wallace explores this. To simplify a book into a sentence, she argued that we separate our online lives from our ‘real’ lives, and therefore our online selves from our real selves. To some extent, we all live the cliché of the dirty old man lurking in the teenagers’ chatroom pretending to be a giggly girl.

I’m not sure that Wallace is right. We all have many selves which are expressed according to context. I imagine that I would behave in one way at a Women’s Institute flower arranging class and another at a swingers’ club. I’ve never had the pleasure of attending either, but from reports of acquaintances who have, required actions at one would be entirely inappropriate at the other. We modulate our expressions of ourselves during every minute of our lives, dressing differently for the office, the pub and the neighbour’s two year old’s birthday party. I even find my accent changing, the longer I spend in Yorkshire. This modulation is necessary, if only because otherwise you will surely shock your granny. Whether you see yourself as an integrated individual expressing different aspects of yourself, or a handful of postmodern fragments constructed from God-knows-what is a question which can wait until someone has written a clear and concise précis of Judith Butler’s work. That might take a while.

The internet isn’t a space separate from real life, my life is real to me if I am in it. Many parts of my life only become real after I have involved the internet. I haven’t successfully organised a meeting of three or more people without the intermediary of Facebook for some time. It could certainly be argued that Facebook, in which others have contributed to the picture of me as much as I have, is a more accurate reflection of myself than the image I would paint alone.

The internet does provide access to things which were previously rather difficult to find if, like me, you are bad at reading maps, or have lived with people who tore leaves out of the Yellow Pages. Most importantly, it is easy to find people who share your obscure interests. There was a time when finding fetish pornography, for example, must have been a bit of an operation. My town doesn’t have an adult shop, and although the newsagent stocks the usual range of top-shelf magazines, I don’t think you’ll find any Shibari rope tying in there. Perhaps you have the courage to ask the woman at the counter to order you something in. I certainly wouldn’t, so suddenly I would be on the bus into York, trawling for shops which step back from the pavement and hunch their shoulders under their raincoats. Once you’ve found one, glanced furtively around to check that you aren’t being observed by friends or colleagues, you can take a deep breath and go in. Advance past the rack of whips, cuffs and leather. Try not to give too much thought to the rubberwear, or ask yourself who actually buys polyester French maid costumes. Don’t get distracted by the intricacies of the strange eroticism of the Snow White outfit on the mannequin, you will have time to think about it later. Right now, just edge along until you reach the magazines. Don’t go too far, or you’ll be in the extensive gay section, and you don’t want to see what’s going on in there. Here you are. Three bondage magazines, take a copy and wipe off the dust. I know the man behind the counter is staring at you, and you would really prefer a dark corner to inspect your possible purchase, but, frankly, if you were a sex shop proprietor, would you provide dark corners for lurky men to paw at magazines? Just have a quick shufty under the strip lights. You’ll be fine as long as you don’t look up.

Stop! I told you not to look up, didn’t I? You didn’t think she was real, did you? Eejit! All I can say is that you’ve obviously never seen the real Tera Patrick in action. When you’ve stopped mistaking inflatable dolls for naked women, you’d better pick up all those vibrators you knocked over. Turn that big purple one off, while you’re at it. What, you want to leave? But you haven’t picked yourself a magazine yet. Are you sure that one will do? Well, if you want to pay for three just because you’re feeling self conscious, on your own head be it. Just get them bagged up properly so that no one knows what you’re carrying on the bus home.

Let us compare that experience to typing “fetish porn Shibari” into Google. You get 27,100 results which I’m not going to explore because that may take a while and I’m writing this for you. The chances are, though, that pictures of naked women and elaborate knot work aren’t going to be enough for you anyway. You want to find other people like you, with whom you can share this new, exciting side of your character. You could be part of a community, exchanging tips on the best knotting techniques, laughing at Shibari related jokes and maybe, if you are lucky, you’ll meet a girl and get to do some tying up of your very own.

It doesn’t have to be Shibari. I’ve wormed my way into online communities to do with writing, activism, Guardian-reading and BDSM. You may have chosen Scotty dogs and Morris dancing, but they essentially the same. You’ve found something you are vaguely interested in, and, because it was easy, gone for a poke about. You may or may not have stayed, but the internet is big enough, and people multifaceted enough, that I’m sure something will have caught your interest.

Perhaps your behaviour was a little erratic at first. On joining any sort of online community, from Twitter to Facebook to (I kid you not), you are in a new culture. You’ve come alone to the party, and there’s a chance you’ll get drunk and throw up in the host’s handbag. Since everyone at the party has a slightly different agenda, finding a model for your own behaviour can be difficult. At least, that’s the excuse I make for the dirty messages strangers send me on Facebook and Fetlife. There are some weirdoes out there, but then, there are Daily Mail readers out there, too, so what can you do?

If you are one of the Scotty Dog Lovers you are probably not too worried about being discovered. Some people I see online must fear discovery daily: married men looking for casual sex, criminals boasting of their crimes. I’m sure that most people are like me, they just don’t want their separate worlds to mesh. I don’t want my schoolfriends to know just how bad my poetry is, I don’t want my ex-boyfriends to see pictures of me on a bad hair day, and really don’t want my father to see the list of enjoyable activities which graces my profile on Fetlife. The separation of myself on different parts of the internet gives me a freedom of expression which I value.

The separating walls are beginning to crumble. It all started when an acquaintance from the National Novel Writing Month launch party took the very simple step of Googling the name I use on the NaNoWriMo forums. He was able to discover: my Writewords profile, including some writing; my Guardian Soulmates profile; and this blog. Now someone in my real life knows a little bit too much. He doesn’t know anyone else I know, though, so it’s ok. Then yesterday I got a message on Fetlife from someone who had originally seen me on Guardian Soulmates, asking if I would like to meet. I have begun to realise how difficult it is to keep my selves separate.

Since the beginning, I have relied on everyone’s indifference. How many people are interested enough to trawl the internet looking for traces of me? I have always thought that the number must be close to zero. Then I had a look at my own behaviour.
I regularly check the Facebook pages of people I haven’t spoken to in years. Who wouldn’t want to know if their ex-lover is dating someone better looking than them? Who wouldn’t want to know if the actor they had a one night stand with has made it big yet? I’m sure I’m not the only one who does this. Then there’s the obsessive researching of potential dates. Mostly you get a handful of mentions on out of date websites, but now and again you can learn a lot from published work or—joy of joys—their very own website. A friend pulled up my last boyfriend’s site the day before our second date. His academic writing was unexciting, the pictures of himself with his cat were slightly embarrassing, but his music was excruciating. We sat and listened to every track of self-composed tragedy and heartache. We cringed, we laughed, we cringed again, and then we asked each other why anyone would open their heart to such a degree in such a public forum.

In the light of all this perhaps I need to reconsider my assumption about the indifference of my acquaintance. Shall I bury myself under another couple of layers of anonymity, or shall I come out, to all and sundry?

Do let me know what you think.

Written by Not an Odalisque

November 27, 2009 at 10:59 pm