ALIVE ONLINE: Mistaken Identities
Defining Ourselves in Cyberspace

Debra Littlejohn Shinder

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Art By: Jeff Westover
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Who among us has never yearned, at least momentarily, to be someone other than who we are? Even those most satisfied with their own lives and at peace with themselves must sometimes wish for a chance to break out of character, to do something different, to shed the familiar persona and try a different role -- if for no other reason than to prove that they can.

This is one benefit of travelling to far away places. Miles from home and those who know us, away from our reputations and the expectations others have of us, we feel a certain sense of freedom in anonymity. We worry a little less about "what people will think." We're a little more inclined to "loosen up," to "act a little crazy."

Some carry it to dangerous extremes, and never come home at all. A story recently ran in the Dallas Morning News about a man who often came to the metroplex on business. During his last visit, he was murdered -- and the investigation uncovered the fact that he had been living a secret, promiscuous life on these trips, frequenting gay bars in not-so-nice parts of town. His family back home had no idea.

Fortunately, these days things are a little less risky. The Internet has provided a whole new, much more convenient, and less expensive way to "get away from it all," let go of our inhibitions and indulge our wild sides. The first time you log onto the net is a little like visiting another city -- or even another planet. Nobody knows you; you don't have to reveal your real name, and nobody even knows what you look like. You can do or say things you would never even think about doing or saying "back home."

That freedom can have a strange effect. People who never lie in their "real world" interactions may think nothing of telling outrageous untruths to those they meet in cyberspace. Plain Jane PTA moms create for themselves dramatic, daring, sex-kitten personalities with provocative screen names. Timid young ladies who would never approach a stranger on the street invite men, whose real names they don't know, into private chat rooms. Ostensibly happily married housewives engage in clandestine cyber-affairs with losers to whom they wouldn't give the time of day in "real life."

People online play games with one another, make up sob stories to gain sympathy, inflate their accomplishments and job titles and incomes to impress others, rewrite their histories, and omit or change important pieces of information like age or marital status.

So what's so new and different about that? Haven't there always been people who lied? Of course. But what's going on in cyberspace seems a little different somehow. Many of those who are telling the biggest whoppers don't seem to categorize their actions as dishonest at all. And these are people who are normally upstanding, honest citizens. Some of them will even tell you that they really DO become "somebody else" when they go online.

"It's like I have an alter ego, an evil twin," one woman laughed. "The only time I can let her out is when I sign onto AOL. She can do all the naughty things I'm too afraid or too goody-goody to do. And nobody will ever know she's me."

Maybe it's the notion that "no one will ever know" that leads so many people to let their darker sides emerge when they venture into the foggy, faceless venue of cyberspace. One friend of mine argues that it's healthy to give free rein to one's "nasty clone" sometimes. Certainly the freedom to act on whatever impulse arises without fear of consequences is one of the great attractions of Internet interaction.

Yet this freedom may also be the Internet's greatest danger -- psychologically and perhaps even physically.

Those who participate in e-mail discussion groups are well acquainted with the flame war phenomenon. Due perhaps to the limitations inherent in written communications -- lack of facial expressions, voice tone, and body language by which we normally convey so much of the spirit of our message -- list participants seem to take offence to seemingly innocent remarks more readily than we're used to in face-to-face interaction. Sometimes I'm amazed at how much anger there is out there, lurking below the surface and ready to explode into torrents of angry words at the slightest provocation.

It's a little scary when you meet old friends in this new place, and find them acting in ways that make you question whether you knew them as well as you thought you did. But what's even scarier is when you find YOURSELF turning into someone "different" when you go online, playing a role, creating a character your best friend wouldn't recognize, someone your spouse wouldn't want to be married to, the kind of girl or guy you'd never, ever bring home to meet your mother.

We are always defining and redefining ourselves, uncovering new facets of our personalities, leaving behind old ways and adopting new (and we hope, better) ways of acting and thinking. A major change in environment or circumstances is often a catalyst for changing our habits, looks, or lifestyles as well. The chance to "start over" and correct past mistakes is one we've all embraced at one time or another, whether it be after a divorce, upon starting a new job, or when moving to a new city. There's nothing wrong with becoming a new person. If we aren't doing that constantly, we're stagnating instead of growing.

The question is: what sort of new person do we choose to become? Although some might say that having a place where we can give vent to our bad impulses is good for us, I wonder. It seems to me that such acts as throwing electronic temper tantrums, or becoming a master of online deception, or turning into a cyber-slut, are all bad habits that can be just as destructive as doing those same things in the "outside" world. When it comes down to it, we ARE what we do. And unless we're sociopaths, what we do will affect how we feel about ourselves.

Even if you have a plethora of secret AOL screen names that you change every six days to ensure that nobody discovers your real identity, YOU will know what you're doing. And if you feel it that necessary to hide and "protect your privacy," you must not be very proud of your actions. You may argue that nobody's getting hurt, but is that really true? What of those people on the other end of the modem line that you're flaming? They're real people with real feelings, not computer programs. What of all those cyber-partners with whom you're indulging your fantasies? Can you be sure they won't "get serious" and want to meet in person? Can you be sure none of them is saving your hot chat in a file, one that an unsuspecting spouse may stumble across one day? Are you absolutely certain the online enemy you make today won't show up on your doorstep tomorrow? Are there any real benefits that come from acting out on the worst aspects of your nature, just because you can?

It seems to me that there is much more value in building a solid, respectable reputation in the online community. The power to define who we are and what we stand for is a precious gift. Why not use it, no matter where we are, to create a persona we can be proud of, rather than one we'd be ashamed to have exposed?

The net DOES provide freedom, the freedom to define ourselves in a whole new light. Yet with freedom comes the responsibility of owning up to our choices. We should think hard about who we are and who we want to appear to be when we enter the global village of cyberspace. Because the whole world, literally, is indeed watching.

Debra Littlejohn Shinder is a writer, editor, community college instructor, and part-time computer consultant who lives in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area with her husband, Tom, and her teenage son.

email Debra at:

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