[Credit to David Byrne for the post title]
Way back in November of 2007 I posted about the sordid saga of Ethan Reynolds, formerly of the model blog / community Brat Boy School (since shut down; internet wayback machine link here – caution, it loads slowly). I’m seeing echoes of that experience in the recent downfall of “Hockey Kid Mikey,” an alleged gay high school hockey player promoted by gay web site OutSports who, after building a small empire on the web, turned out to probably be a 40-year-old gay hockey fan.
Both appear to be cases where some blogger used the magical power of the internet to pretend to be someone else. In both cases the bloggers built an enormous base of enamored fans, and in both cases their success began to open doors outside the internet shortly before their fictitious persona fell apart. In neither case were any actual crimes (apparently) committed, and yet in both cases the fans, once betrayed, called for blood.
As I was in 2007, I am fascinated by the response from fans. It’s not as if this technique is old. I’ve compared Ethan to nudie centerfolds, who always seem to find titillating answers to the same questionnaire, but the creation of a fictional persona is not limited to the vaguely pornographic. Think of Dear Abby, or Poor Richard, or for that matter any talk-show host. None of these people is really the person they present to the world. Granted, that fact is disclosed to varying degrees, but I’d imagine there are many Letterman fans who would be outraged to discover the real person behind the television character he portrays. This is, I would hazard to say, at least partly to blame for the outrage behind the most recent “Late Night Wars,” and why Jay Leno emerged as the villain while Conan’s popularity grew: cutthroat businessman is pretty far removed from the brand Jay has been selling his viewers, while Conan’s brand is apparently not as far from his actual personality.
I understand that blogs are a personal means of expression, but the idea that one person can really connect with another via the internet is dubious. The very nature of the internet is artificial; social networking sites are entirely based around the business of carefully crafting a personal brand. Like the sci-fi trope of the “other-dimensional being extending into our dimension”, our online avatars represent exactly that portion of ourselves that we have decided to show to others. Some people elect to make that portion decades younger, or more attractive, or more athletic, than the aging corporeal meat to which their consciousness is tethered. I find it fairly depressing that so many people attach themselves emotionally to a being who is essentially just digital code, to the point where they become murderous or suicidal (as several of Mikey’s readers claimed to be) when Toto pulls back the curtain.
Not that I’m encouraging this kind of business practice. When the actual human behind the “Hockey Kid Mikey” character started to notice his blog community growing out of control – when he started getting comments from gay teenagers who said his words saved them from suicide – that was probably the time to pull the rip-cord. Delete the blog and vanish, or come clean about creating a false persona, rather than riding it out like George Costanza until your lies finally blow up in your face.
Ultimately, unless the writer is committing some kind of crime (and I stress here that, so far at least, there is no evidence of any crime) then the onus must be on the reader to approach everything on the internet with skepticism. How different is emotionally attaching oneself to an invisible blogger from believing the latest chain email about how microwaved water causes cancer or Barrack Obama is planning to give Texas back to Mexico? The internet is, more than anything else, a colossal work of collaborative fiction. Historical fiction, perhaps, but fiction. Anyone who approaches it otherwise is going to get burned.
For my part, I have a confession to make: I am not as smart as I come across on my blog. The crafting of each post includes frequent visits to Wikipedia, and some sentences are even revised before publication. Speak with me in person and you’ll quickly notice I struggle to recall the names of the most major historical figures, I confuse the dates of major events, and I giggle every time Noam Chomsky is mentioned because I get a mental image of a pac-man like monster devouring everything he sees (I call him CHOMP-sky). I do promise, however, that I am the person I claim to be. At least the good parts.