In 1985, I made a conscious decision to become someone else for purposes of online communication. There were several motivations involved, one of which was the fact that at the time I was going through serious emotional churn: I didn’t realize it at the time, but most of what I’d thought of as My Life up to that point was about to be spaded over, and once the dirt was spread, the land would be sown with salt, much of it from my own tears.
Or some such overwrought nonsense. I may, however, have hastened my own downfall, since I could never have lived up to the persona I’d adopted. Most people, I surmise, don’t run this much risk.
And apparently there’s cultural precedent for this sort of thing. Timothy Burke writes that a byproduct of today’s social media is the massification of self-reinvention, at least for online consumption. Some of us may desire subtle shading, while others might seem to have greater ambition:
It’s not that we’ve been delivered into a brave new world of spectacularly predatory frauds and newly vulnerable victims, nor been gifted a utopian tool for social formation. Instead, it’s everyman a Lord Byron or George Eliot, if he or she wants to be. The crafting of gentler fictions of selfhood, performative shadings and experiments of our everyday personalities, through disseminated publication, is now a widely distributed possibility.
Wall Street being generally disdainful of Walmart, the spreading of a phenomenon from rarefied to routine will not be taken lightly:
[J]ust as in the rapid spread of mass consumption over a century ago, the rage and fear of many dismayed critics is as much about the displacement of their claim to social distinction as it is an analysis of the likely consequences of massification. If everyone can make a literary self or cultural avatar who stands in for them in the public sphere, then crafting a memorably exaggerated literary self like Norman Mailer or Mark Twain or Jonathan Franzen is not in itself anything remarkable. If millions are doing it, most of their inventions will be banal, confused or generic, but there will be enough whose reading of the zeitgeist leads to some memorable performative response so as to demonstrate that past literary lives were less special or extraordinary in their inventions than their celebrants have so often proclaimed.
So how hard did Sam Clemens have to work at being Mark Twain? It’s generally accepted that Pudd’nhead Wilson was a rush job, more than fifty thousand words in a single month, a desperate attempt to stay one step ahead of the creditors. As a schoolboy with severe writer’s block, I was duly impressed by Twain’s productivity, whatever his motivation. Now, as an old man with severe writer’s block, I am duly impressed by the thousands of people who are going to write novels of this length this November. I couldn’t tell you if most of them — any of them — have adopted special novel-writing personas for the occasion, but I suspect there’s no way you can turn out this much prose without being changed in some fashion or other.
Which, solipsist that I am, brings me back to me. I am no novelist, and I no longer go to the trouble of maintaining a fictionalized or exaggerated online self: my WYSIWYG conceals no bald spots. Yet I have to wonder if sheer volume has done the job for me; I’ve written millions of words on this site, and nearly a million on Twitter, fergoshsakes. I don’t feel any different; I don’t see myself bisected, a half that writes and a half that eats. But it’s impossible for me to see myself as I might have been had I not spent the last quarter-century online; nor, for that matter, am I possessed of the ability to see myself as others see me. I’d ask Bobby Burns, but he’s dealing with lice at the moment.