Tuesday, June 10, 2003

(Masks, 2)

To paraphrase an overparaphrased New Yorker cartoon, On the Internet, nobody knows you're a superhero. Or, to be more precise, nobody knows you're both a superhero and a mild-mannered reporter.

I love the fact that we earthlings have created a zone, equal parts fantasy and reality, where we can explore our most private desires in the most public of forums. Sure, that privilege can be abused to deceive and cheat innocent parties, but since I'm neither the parent of an impressionable child nor the potential purchaser of a bridge in the middle of a desert, I prefer to accentuate the positive and celebrate the free reign of anonymity. We're living in the golden age of make-believe. To quote (out of context) the chorus of a song by Hamell on Trial, "We can be who we want to be."

I doubt that anyone reading this thinks my "real" name is either Bruce Wayne or Wayne Bruce. And I take pains not to disclose enough details of my actual life here that someone will later be able to expose me as a perv should I ever manage to construct much of a public self. My motivation isn't fear of embarassment so much as a love of concealment -- the risk of discovery is part of the thrill of superhero lore for me, and the more public you are about your shadow self, the bigger the risk and the more you have at stake. (I learned this dance of exposure and retreat early: My mother was a very guarded person, always taking pains to tell me not to share family business with even my closest friend. At the same time, though, mom was also very outgoing, a natural performer who felt empowered to tell her audience just about about anything about just about anyone if it would provoke a response.) One of the readers of this blog -- somebody I will always picture as Superman since that's the way he appears online -- asks in a recent e-mail, "Why does a professional guy who's pretty quiet and shy in real life love being a cyber-exhibitionist?" He's referring to his own experience there, but I can certainly identify. (By the way, my super-buddy tells me he wants to hear from other men with similar feelings or interests, and you can contact him here. And if you have any thoughts on the question he poses you'd like to share with other readers of this blog, feel free to e-mail me, too.)

The web provides us with such wonderful opportunities to maintain secret identities, some of which really do take on lives of their own. The most famous of these recently is "Salam Pax," creator of the blog "Where is Raed?" and surely the first superstar of this budding medium. Then there's "Mouchette," allegedly a 13-year-old girl but actually the invented persona of a mystery artist who promises to reveal his or her true identity eventually. In fact, the Mouchette site is almost entirely about this riddle, as far as I can tell. (I find the actual project more annoying than titillating, but I still applaud the premise.)

Shortly after 9/11/01, I started playing around with the political possibilities of multiple selves, creating free e-mail addresses for fabricated beings and "letting" them send messages to hundreds of people, some of whom I barely knew. Some were overtly activist-oriented and others were (and I mean this in the best possible way) idiots, passing along blatantly idiotic rumors with an undercurrent of pointed satire. (Ex: I hear Target is giving away everything that's red, white, and blue in the store -- which makes sense, because who would dare to profit off an international tragedy by capitalizing on patriotism?) My humble goal was to launch a worldwide movement -- a meme, to use current terminology -- from my own home. My own little bit of masked vigilante crimefighting, if you will. It didn’t quite take off on a global scale (since it would have required much more effort than I was willing to put into the project), but I got some nice results, the most surreal of which was a person who responded to one of my fictional characters (one of the idiots, a pro-war zealot) by forwarding her an e-mail from one of my other characters (an anti-war activist), saying, "Read this; you could learn something from it"). I learned a certain amount from the prank and I'm pretty sure I could pull it off more successfully during America's next war, but in the meantime I encourage you to try this trick at home.

One of the nicest things about the anonymity of the net is the way it allows us to perform altruistic acts in secrecy. We can offer gifts to the universe without expecting direct repayment. That's the impulse behind so many of the wonders of the web: file sharing, open source software, elaborate sites devoted to a single subject, and blogs like Salam Pax's (and this one), for instance. I have in mind a story by Pablo Neruda, quoted at the end of Lewis Hyde's mind-expanding book THE GIFT, in which the poet recalls his boyhood in Mexico. Young Pablo approaches a fence with a hole in it; a hand materializes (get yer mind out of the gutter--this ain't no gloryhole) and offers him a little toy sheep. The adult Neruda writes: "To feel the intimacy of brothers is a marvellous thing in life. To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life. But to feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know, from those unknown to us, who are watching over our sleep and solitude, over our dangers and weaknesses -- that is something still greater and more beautiful because it widens out the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things."

That last line, about the unknown ones who watch over our sleep: I can imagine no more vivid description of my beloved Caped Crusader, and no better illustration of how any one of us can become the Batman in our everyday lives.

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