WASHINGTON, D.C.—Recently, we have been treated to a number of new scandals from the internet identity parade: “A Gay Girl in Damascus” turned out to be a straight guy in Scotland; “Paula Brooks,” a deaf, lesbian, mother of two who ran a lesbian news website, Lez Get Real, turned out to be a man in Washington, D.C.; and Anthony Weiner created a whole cast of characters in a bid to date every attractive female east of the Mississippi.
But these high-profile examples are just the tiniest little tip of an enormous mountain of fake cyber-selves that exist on the Internet. How many there might be is impossible to tell, but if you ask people with lots of experience on the Net, everyone, and I mean everyone, knows a couple dozen of ersatz people they’ve met online.
“Sometimes it’s really easy to spot,” says one gamer. “They start to chat and you can tell right now this isn’t a 15-year-old girl from Iowa, but probably a 45-year-old ad executive from L.A.”
And that is the point of a lot of this kind of play acting. In real life, if you want to pretend to be something you’re not in public, it’s a lot of work and people are really good at seeing you for a fake right off the bat unless you take considerable pains to hide the real you. On the Internet, you just make stuff up. There’s no preparation required and consistency.
In the July 1993 issue of the New Yorker, a cartoon appeared by Peter Steiner depicting two dogs. One was sitting at a computer, saying to another dog sitting on the floor, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”
This is a very funny image, but it is also very true: more and more people enter the Internet and begin to live dozens of false lives there.
Is there a problem with this? Who knows really. Certainly, it can be an excellent form of recreation, in moderation. However, there is some evidence that fantasy role playing, if practiced to excess, can make people very unhappy. Much like other addictions, play time can leak into real life. People are left feeling dissatisfied with their real lives and long for their imaginary lives. Fake friends can take on greater importance than real people. So called Internet divorces often occur because of the infidelity of a spouse or partner who is having an imaginary affair with an artificial person.
People who get involved in these shadow lives, spend less and less time with real people, real friends and real family. They become less and less connected to and motivated by the real world and begin to live in a fantasy world of scoring points, not building relationships. Much of these games involve petting egos—you pet my character’s ego, usually with sympathy, and I pet you back. Unlike real activities with real people, though, these ego boosting sessions create a kind of fake self-esteem that is very temporary and requires constant feeding.
When imaginary things take on real substance in peoples’ lives and it begins to produce harm, it is time to take a step back and take a long, hard look at the nature of these games. People invest so much of themselves into these activities, which have no connection to reality. In real life, there are checks and balances, i.e., people will tell you when you get weird. There is no such brake on the cyberworld. There is also no risk, nor any gain in these concoctions. Although, they can be an interesting exercise, they build no character and are no substitute for real experiences.
You can usually tell who is one of these cyber junkies because their communication is in little twitter-like sound bites, with words that sound good but with a disjointed flow of ideas and concepts. They often respond inappropriately to posts, suddenly reacting to things that were not in the original post.
At the end of the day, when the system goes down, it’s just electrons and they’re left alone and lonely. Game over.
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