In 1995, my wife and I registered for our first internet service account. We shared the e-mail address that came with the account. Our only point of reference for an address was our postbox. We shared our mail box. We also shared our phone number, and answering machine, the only other point of reference. There was a certain amount of security in that we had only a single point of contact so we could send ourselves e-mail with the confidence that the other person would see it. We could keep on each other’s virtual lives. Even the phrase virtual live seemed high flown, theoretical even, thirteen years ago.
Within the year we had both moved our own Web-based e-mail accounts because the addresses would outlast our internet service providers. The old address had the name of the ISP, Earthlink, in it. The old address required a client to access. The old address was my wife’s initials and last name and seemed cryptic and in it’s lack of relation seemed to provide a collective secrete handle.
Several incidents though drove us to a separate addresses. My wife participated in online bulletin boards, and I would read her correspondence and then someone started to pick a fight with her and so I responded as her. When we ordered presents for one another from Amazon the mail was sent to the collective address. So we moved to separate accounts.
In the meanwhile, though our virtual identities became older and more sophisticated. I had a web site named Seed Cake because of a zine I had published. This alias was useful to me because online an alias name was flexible. I could be anything I wanted using an amorphous handle.
Although I kept up a Web based e-mail, my working address hopped from ISP to ISP. My level of virtualization remained fairly conventional. I never pretended to be a thirteen-year old girl, for instance. Online though this was possible, and even if I didn’t try to pass myself as a thirteen-year old girl, the structure of being online with made up names, with photos I’d scanned and maybe doctored a bit in photoshop, with references to web sites I could easily create myself created the sense that my identity was fiction. It was rooted in traditional things such as where I was from or the social class of my parents, and where I went to high-school. I began to keep a blog in the early 2000s but never really adopted the steady stream of self-reflection and scaz that made for a compelling blog. Nor have I been able to keep at it on a daily basis or focus on a single topic, both things that seem to make for successful blogs.
Although there is the possibility of passing yourself off under sometime somewhat fictional personae online, after thirteen years of being online, I can see that there many conservative mechanisms to keep identity in check. Reputation and gossip permeate the web. My usage of online stores, old forum posts, and even my endless search engine behavior leaves a pattern in the web that captures my virtual actions and in many ways this is the essence of my character, at least in Aristotelian terms: character is action. I might say, then, that online identity is shopping, search engine patterns, and old forum and blog posts. Real world networks also have their online echo contestant tying Even the most lightly trafficked blog is discoverable via Google by anyone if you use real names, as I’ve discovered for my own lightly trafficked blog when I wrote about my experience at WordStock in 2005. And so the Web has these two competing ways of being virtual. On one hand, a person can pretend to be anything, on the other hand, they still cannot escape themselves because they a trail of actions: mistakes, comments, blog, posts, and purchases.
Of course, there remains and probably will always remain a huge gulf between real world networks and virtual networks. Many people I’ve known over the years have left no detectable trace online. Conversely, people who I might have known hardly at all have huge, vibrant virtual presence.
During this time as I’ve found myself split into these two modes of being, one in the real world and the other virtual, my wife has had also split. There is her physical presence in our marriage with her undeniable real world physicality such as giving birth to a child, and then there is the shadowy, constructed life of her virtual presence. In the real world, she responds to her real name. She will even respond to, hey you, by throwing something at my head. In the virtual world, she responds to a number of contextual handles. One name belongs to a number of webforums. Another name she came up hastily while exploring an online music community, lecouturier, not realizing the drag gender chaos in using the masculine French article with the feminine lecouturier. When she had realized these things she had left a virtual record and was stuck with the handle.
One of my surprises of my being a father has been the central presence my wife’s physicality is to our tiny, nuclear family. I imagine that this is a given to people in traditional mindsets and so they cannot conceive of a family without a female body being central to the family. We could easily have a lovely family if my wife was a man, but as a woman, me as a heterosexual man and my daughter each require our pound of physicality from my wife. I require close physical proximity, like a cat. My daughter breast-fed for three years. For much of this time, she kept within an arms reach of my wife. My daughter depended on her to go to sleep. When she felt tired, she would lie down next to my wife and suck her thumb and twirl her hair with one hand while she listened to my wife breath.
Five years ago she joined a web community, and her presence of which had been closely related to her through her e-mail address became something else. It became a real time echo and began to take on a life of its own. She related to other people online, and they interacted in the virtual space of this web community. She began to talk about people in her immediate social circle, like my coworkers, who occupied this other world and whom she had never met. There was a woman in Fremont and another in Olympia. And they all had names hardly related all to the physical world. In fact, these people who were close enough that we could visit them were really as close at hand in this other place as people in England and New Zealand and Australia.
My wife wanted me to drive her to Fremont to meet her friend Carol. Her husband was a music teacher. They lived in a narrow condo on the side of the hill. I dropped her off and told her to call me at the first sign of trouble. But really from angle I was dropping my wife on a street corner no different from other street corners in the city. My wife pointed to a house. A shadow behind some drapes dropped the drapes. A car behind me honked, and I kept on my way and when I returned hours later, my wife was on the patio with the woman, a pleasant looking stranger with her dark brown hair in a bun. I picked up my wife and she was perplexed by the physical manifestation of her friend because in physical space, in the verbal space they occupied she didn’t interact as well as did in virtual space.
For a time, my wife used photos of herself that were current and came more or less directly from the digital camera. They were at first six months old. She had pictures of herself when she was working out. And then, she began to use Photoshop to “correct” them.
Around this time, there were fads in the webforum photos. Everyone used their feet for their journal icons. Everyone did them in costume.
On her music forum, my wife made friends with some graphic designers. One of these designers worked on magazine photos doing digital touch up. The art was to add hair and give her a digital nose job so that she would register visually as her herself but at the same time look like an improved image of herself. The disconnect here was that unlike real world plastic surgery, this was a digital job.
Of course, I became agitated by her digitally improved photograph. It didn’t look like her, and yet it did and it pointed to the reality of her nonreal, virtual life. She was two people, just as I was two people, virtual and real, and the photo pointed the fact that this other, virtual self was a person who I didn’t have a relationship with — and nor did I really want one with this other person, and yet, and yet, it was still her.
I became aware then after this happened that were surrounded not by photographs of people but illustrations that were created from continuous tone images that mimicked photographs that themselves were machine copies of perceived reality. I wondered if celebrities came with instructions on how to reshape images so that they would be consistent.
I was at the river a couple of days ago and took off my glasses. The sun was coming down against the river, and glinting and it held tiny circles with yellow centers and bright almost white margins like tiny, glowing blocks. When I focuses on it with my glasses on they formed a pattern on the water, combining, and recombining into shapes. This was something “real”, and yet it was an illusion like a mirage, something not really there. To really see the river as it was, my eyes required the mediation of my glasses. But that wasn’t all. To see the literal river was impossible because the literal river as in motion, but I had no way to really know it was in motion except for my memory of objects, sticks and leaves, moving down the river. There weren’t any sticks or leaves or anything from where I sat on the bank. It was a shifting field of colors and flashes. The only reason I knew it was a river was because it made the sound of a river and because I remembered what a river was, and I could imagine what would happen if I put myself in the river.