cupidsbow (cupidsbow) wrote,

Online Personas and the Death of the Pseudonym by cupidsbow

Online Personas and the Death of the Pseudonym

cupidsbow's response to the constantine biography

Like everyone else in fandom, I've spent the last couple of days reading the constantine biography by charlottelennox. My first response was to post about it, because I found it so unsettling that I wanted to discuss it with other people. My next instinct was to stay silent, as it wasn't my tragedy or betrayal, so I didn't really have a reasonable stake in weighing in on it; I felt it would be too much like making a grab for glory on the coat-tails of other people's misery.

Now that I'm past my first knee-jerk reaction, I still feel that it's not my tragedy, and I don't want to say anything about the people involved (who have more than enough on their plates). But the thing is, I do feel unsettled by what's happened, and on more than one level, even though I was only ever a lurker in HP fandom.

I think this whole affair feels personal, despite my lack of direct involvement, because of the way I identify in relation to fandom. I'm only secondly a Lotripper or an SGA fan or whatever. I identify primarily as a fan of science fiction and fantasy in the broadest sense. I think I've mentioned before that I consider literature a kind of slow-motion conversation, and everyone who writes/tells, or actively reads, a text is engaged in it. With regards to sf/f, that's a conversation I've been having for years and years, starting with my childhood love of books, and only later expanding to include the fannish activities I perform with like-minded friends.

So while I'm not particularly close to any well-known HP fans--mostly only related by two or three degrees of fannish separation--they too are part of the conversation I'm having as a fan of sf/f. I've read Rowling's books. I've lurked around reading HP slash on-and-off for years. I've heard on the fannish grapevine about most of the major events in the constantine biography: I remember boggling at the crazy Black List, and feeling disappointed by Charitygate; I remember fans locking up all their works because of "attacks"; I remember being awed at the popularity of the Very Secret Diaries; and I remember scratching my head, just like everyone else, over the constantine IP evidence when it was first posted (although I had no understanding of the political undercurrents swirling around it). Maybe none of these things happened in my immediate fannish circle, but I knew about them. I also remember smiling fondly at newbie fans when they told me earnestly that HP fandom was scary; I thought to myself, "Ah, innocence. Just wait until they realise all fandoms are like that."

Three days ago, when I started reading the constantine biography, I was initially kind of laughing at it: "Good old HP fans, wanking again." That reaction didn't last long. The humour quickly faded away, and by about chapter six I was feeling sick. There was this click inside my head as all those pieces of remembered fannish history started falling into place. On the face of it, such a convoluted biography should seem like the craziest fiction, written by someone with a serious grudge. I can see that, with my non-fannish eyes. But the biography doesn't read that way. It just doesn't seem far-fetched at all. In fact, it makes everything I know about HP fandom make sense.

The fact that the biography is so convincing is one reason this situation disturbs me. I've lived long enough to meet a few really scary individuals in my life, and even to be taken in by some of them, so I have some understanding of how that kind of charisma vortex works, and how it skews everything around it. Yes, it's scary, and I hope I never get sucked into that kind of situation myself, especially online where so much by necessity must be taken at face-value. But I do understand how it happens.

That's not my only concern, though; I'm also disturbed by the wider implications of the document. Am I the only one stunned by the sheer mass of information pieced together by charlottelennox? Seriously, that's freaking me out at least as much as the actual biographical narrative. It's impressive how much supporting evidence s/he found, and I admire the effort it must have taken, I really do, but despite my admiration, I'm surprised and a bit horrified that s/he could track it all down. Yes, I was aware that once you post something on the internet it was liable to be around forever; I just somehow didn't grok what that meant.

After seeing such a detailed biography, the ability to piece together a life from ephemeral traces suddenly seems so much more personal. I don't want to make this all about me me me, when so many people have been deeply affected by this, but I can't help but see how this reflects on the ways in which I interact on the net. For instance, I've been aware for a long time that cupidsbow is an aspect of my public persona, and hence part of the public domain (I always try to keep that in mind when I post anything). But even knowing that, it still seems really, really freaky that so much information can be gleaned about a user's virtual persona/s long after many of the posts themselves have disappeared from the web. It leaves me asking, just what is the internet anyway? And have I been blind about its true nature all this time?

Which brings me to the whole "strawpuppet" idea. The thing is, I can see some value in sockpuppets, or, to use a less loaded term, alternate virtual personas. One of my favourite things about the internet is the way it enables us to experiment with identity and try out different ways of constructing ourselves. I've even done it a bit myself. Recently, I created a second LJ for exactly this reason, as I thought it might help me overcome writer's block if I had a forum to post in, with no attached public expectations. As things worked out, I never used that "sockpuppet" LJ, and if I had, I probably wouldn't have kept it a secret for long. I'm no good at secrets. But my point is, I see the fluidity that's an inherent aspect of the internet as one of its most interesting features, because it potentially opens up so many possibilities for post-human expression, going beyond the "isms" that plague embodied life. Yet there is also a downside to this potential flexibility of identity, namely the possibility of creating strawpuppets in order to deliberately wreak havoc in anonymity, or at least semi-anonymity.

What the constantine biography does is demonstrate very clearly that the potential for online anonymity is much, much less than I'd previously thought. Not impossible, with the right kind of know-how and money and so on, but more difficult than I'd thought.

Looking at that biography makes me wonder all sorts of things, such as what kind of picture someone could put together of cupidsbow, and depending on their bias, how unflattering it could be. I wonder about it even though I'm not trying to hide anything in particular. I don't think I have any skeletons in my virtual closet, and a good number of my flist even know my real name, and yet... whoa! It makes me feel paranoid, like I should be looking over my shoulder. I guess it could be argued that that's a good thing, that people should be more aware of the fact that they are always speaking on the record when it's online. Except, I'm already aware of that and have been for a long time. I came to online fandom after being published as an original writer, so I already had a vestigial sense of my authorial persona as a public performance. That sense has only grown and developed over the years I've been posting in this journal. Then, a few months ago, I had that attack of stage fright due to the feeling of being looked at by lots of invisible people. So clearly, I am very aware, perhaps even hyper-aware, that my words are in the public domain. I even know from my academic background, and speaking more widely than just in fannish terms, that an author is usually going to be "read" and "constructed" to some extent along with their work, and that an authorial persona is generally considered to be part of that slow-motion literary conversation I was talking about before.

Still, I was taken aback by the sheer amount of information that charlottelennox could gather about constantine, whether constantine had posted while identifying as that online persona or not. And as a result, I'm left with all these unanswerable questions: Is the era of the pseudonym (virtual or otherwise) over? Has it been over for a while, and I just hadn't noticed? Is there no privacy for authors anymore? Should I be paranoid about this? Is paranoia actually a sane response? Is everything online on the public record, including email, chat, etc? Is the author no longer dead, but instead some kind of weird post-modern zombie constructed by the online gestalt?

In addition, I'm also left wondering exactly what kind of long-term fallout the constantine biography is going to have on online fandom. The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that it could well be a watershed moment, having the potential to directly and indirectly affect many of our fannish interactions from now on.

Or maybe that's just me over-reacting in the heat of the moment. But either way, I'm concerned on multiple levels, and more than a little wigged out by it all.

* * *

You can find other commentary on the biography:

In the comments on the three postings of the biography (from most to least comments), in the individual posts on the JournalFen community Bad Penny, at Charlotte Lennox's JournalFen account, and on Charlotte Lennox's LJ.

At fandom_wank.

In this post on metafandom; no doubt there will be more links in upcoming posts.

oulangi has also been collecting responses.
Tags: essay, fandom
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