My attitude toward internet pseudonyms is probably a bit odd; I’m not sure, though. I don’t know if this will interest any of you, but “why not?”
I played a lot of role-playing games starting in the 70s with D&D and, I have to say, I finally agree with some of my classmates’ parents who were worried that such things would “warp” us. Since I’m not sure what “warping” a teenager entails, I won’t try to sort all of that out, but – at the time – I was highly conscious that role playing, wargaming, and computer gaming were definitely having a massive effect on my mind. I still feel that effect all of the time, because I believe that, collectively, those pastimes polished my problem-solving skills for abstractions in a very effective way.
For example, I believe that the skills we develop in role-play are useful in one of the core activities of philosophizing, which is “putting oneself in another’s position.” It’s a philosopher’s tool, but it’s also an actor’s and a strategist’s. In wargaming, you are constantly asking yourself, “if I were the opposition, what would I be doing?” and collecting a bungh of hypotheticals, subliminally ranking them, then trying to assess them for confounding details. I.e.: is that unit that just appeared over there a feint? Well, it’s an expensive unit so it’s less likely the opposition would risk losing it in a feint, but it’s a highly mobile unit so it’s more likely to be a feint since it can move rapidly to join the enemy’s hypothetical main line of advance. Strategy, in general, is a matter of building and discarding hypothetical cognitive models that you populate with another cognitive model of “what does the enemy know?” For example: it might be worth attacking that unit which may be a feint because, if it’s a feint, the opponent will develop a distorted idea of where my main force actually is – so maybe I should appear to bite at the feint but do it with my own rapidly re-deployable units and see what develops.
The process of flipping your thinking around and forming a hypothetical cognitive model is not just useful for oppositional processes: when I used to write classes on internet security stuff, I constantly maintained a subliminal cognitive model of “what my student probably knows, right about now” which allowed me to get my materials in the right order, present concepts in correct sequence, and come up with relevant examples. Apparently, that worked pretty well, since I seldom got negative feedback on my classes and never once in 30 years had someone tell me my material was scattershot or disorganized. I describe these things as though building an oppositional cognitive model was a conscious thing, but by the time I was in college it was something I automatically did, without paying attention to it. I started paying attention to it, in fact, when I got to my second job and someone mentioned that I had a tendency to always go on the offensive against everyone else’s ideas. That set me back on my heels for a while and a few days later (after much thinking) I went back to that person and explained that I used a similar oppositional model against my own thoughts, always and I didn’t mean any harm by it and I would be more careful not to expose that inappropriately.
My long experience with role-playing and oppositional modeling for strategy built me what I call my “bullshit filter.” The bullshit filter is a mental process that runs between where organized thinking happens, and where the words are assembled into sentences and marshalled to come out of your mouth. It’s the little mental thread that says “no don’t say that!” right before you say something that doesn’t sound right. I had a fascinating conversation back in 2012(?) with Leon M., a bboy and rapper with powerful skills (and all around beautiful human being) about what it feels like to rap – his explanation was similar to my experience of the bullshit filter, it’s just that his bullshit filter was not tuned to bullshit at all – it was tuned to hip-hop timing and phrasing (I’m not going to characterize rapping as rhyming because it does not appear to be that, to me). I’ve thought long and hard about the bullshit filter and I believe that it also comes from years of role-playing: when you’re role-playing, everything that comes out of your mouth has to go through a pre-filter that asks “is this the king of thing that Surly Badger of the Fuel Rats would say in this situation?” That led me to suspect that actors [if any of you dear readers have acting experience, I would particularly appreciate if you could weigh in on what that feels like!] do the same thing.
When I first saw Ian McKellen’s explanation of his acting method, on Extras (above) I nearly injured myself laughing. First off, I love a show that consists of loathsome Ricky Gervais using himself as a punching bag, and then asking top-notch actors and musicians to take a poke at him, too. I feel that McKellen is reaching for a profound truth in his otherwise silly explanation: trained actors build a filter that they drop across their entire cognitive model – they aren’t just asking “How would Gandalf say this?” they are running inside a cognitive model of how Gandalf would, uh, Gandalf – so the output that comes from that is Gandalf-model not McKellen, and then the bullshit filter is watching like a hawk for the slightest sign of “breaking character” i.e.: a bit of McKellen leaking through. I believe that is how it works and maybe how it feels, because I experienced that all the time/many times when role-playing. Probably the height of that, for me, was when I was playing a lot of World of Warcraft, and my main alt, IronBadger of Clan Thunderhoof, kept forcing me to think like a dumbass when I was tanking, because I was so into the role of IronBadger, who was no genius at all, that I felt like I was thinking slower. To the point where some of my friends in the game who knew me personally, asked me why I kept doing certain stupid things over and over. It was IronBadger that kept taking potions of giant size right before trying to lead the party into narrow dungeons, not me.
There is a point to all of this: it forces me to wonder, “who am I?” but not in a bad way. When I used to present consulting reports to CEOs of companies, I was definitely playing a role – it was my “corporate consultant” role and I even, sometimes, referred to it as “corporate cosplay” because, like any actor, I reinforced my own ability to play the role by wearing signs and symbols that reinforced the role: bespoke suit and slim metal briefcase, with expensive shoes. This, by the way, is why Pete Buttigieg used to set my teeth on edge: I immediately caught onto the fact that he was playing the role of a politician, and was acting the part and cosplaying it well – and I had absolutely no idea what was behind the facade. It would be as though Daniel Day-Lewis decided to run for president: he’d be so frickin’ presidential that we’d all feel he was the second coming, even if we knew it was all an act.
And, that brings me back to oppositional cognitive models and strategy: it’s important for us, who wish to strategize for or against someone, to be able to accurately model what they might do in some situation or other. But: in the case where our opponent is also an actor, we don’t know for sure that they’re going to role-play a blockhead like IronBadger or Donald Trump – we might be dealing with a hollow shell that is pursuing a multi-layered strategy that we never see at all. I mention Donald Trump in this context because he’s a good example of a persona that I don’t bother trying to develop a backing cognitive model for: I have no idea what Trump is likely to do because somewhere along the line I concluded that trying to derive a strategic model from all that stuff was a waste of time. I have tried, at various times: follow the money, contrarian troll, political nihilist opportunist – but it doesn’t work, so why bother?
I have sometimes wondered if my way of thinking about people is normal, or sociopathic, but I can no longer imagine any other way of doing it. Besides, it doesn’t matter: this is how I am, now.
All of this is a roundabout response to the discussion on my recent posting about trans rights [stderr] – there was a lot of “who is a sockpuppet for whom?” going around, and I realized that I completely don’t care because, in general, when I am dealing with someone on the internet, I treat everyone as a sockpuppet. Or, more precisely, I assume that everyone is always playing a role – which means that I don’t demand that any one person only play one role. There are some of you that I have come to know fairly well (i.e.: your identity has a fairly well fleshed-out cognitive model attached to it) but I wouldn’t be shocked if I found out that a bunch of you were one particularly bored internet troll who had decided that your life’s purpose was to entertain me while practicing some role-play. I have met one or two people (two, I think – ~waves~!) who comment here regularly, but even then, it was relatively brief and the whole thing could have been a performance. And, if it were, it would make no difference though I’d be impressed by an excellent or irritated by a bad one.
So, as I watched the kerfuffle about who was whom and said what where, I was thinking about Caine. You know, I knew Caine as much as I did under one identity, swapped emails with her under another one and found out upon her death that those identities were also pseudonyms. What I noticed was a very consistent performance of a certain person that I came to identify as an individual. If I had later discovered that Caine was a sub-persona of someone else, I’d be impressed by the performance but I don’t think I’d have been shocked.
When I think about that, I wonder if I am a deeply paranoid person. I know people who have fallen “in love” with performances of personae over the internet. That seems impossible to me, since I’d always be assuming that, to some degree or another, I was dealing with a sockpuppet. For example, I know one person who is very shy in person, but writes fluently and powerfully in email, to the point where you might be justified in concluding that one or the other was an impostor. There, now, I used the word “impostor” – which I had been avoiding so far – because an “impostor” seems to be a false performance, whereas a person attempting to truly communicate in correspondence would be “real”, I suppose. Or, would they? The medium really does influence the message, to the point where the message may get obliterated in the noise. That’s why I tend to be extremely skeptical of everything about how everyone on social media presents their self and everything around them. I feel that that’s also a valuable gift I gained from the role-playing and public speaking I’ve done: I could easily have posted nicely composed and lit photos of myself at every conference where I went, of me drinking in swanky hotel bars, etc., and presented a false persona of urbane sophistication. Back in the mid-oughts, there was one photographers’ model I worked with who used to know a good number of worldly travelers – she’d arrange to go take some selfies of herself soaking in the fancy bathroom in the presidential suite at The Fairmont, or wherever, and post them on Instagram. Nowadays they all do that, and there are fancy Airbnb places that you can rent if you want a spiffy expensive Manhattan office as a backdrop. They’re all sockpuppets, to me.
So now I wonder if my parents and their friends were right, and that playing too much D&D and gaming warped me slightly. Not, by exposing me to satanic concepts and demonology, but by leading me to believe that everyone I meet is a performance to some degree or another. It has certainly also immunized me – to a certain degree – from shock about gender presentation. I don’t really understand what the big deal, for some people is, but it appears that there is outright terror of the idea that they might be having a nice time with someone, wind up going back to someplace private and making out, and then discovering that their genitals don’t match the expectations derived from the rest of the performance. Or, that “hot 16year old firstname.lastname@example.org” is actually a 40 year old FBI agent – also a performance. After all, the point of online identities is that they are disposable.
A while ago, a fellow showed up here asserting that they were a long-time police officer and tone-trolling me (and to a lesser degree, The Commentariat(tm)) for improperly slagging off all cops as bastards. In retrospect, I think I didn’t even waste any time wondering if that persona was really a long-time police officer, or not – my thought process was basically, “uh huh” and I was role-playing right back as if I were communicating with a long-time police officer. I like to imagine that if Ian McKellen (by the way: you absolutely killed it in Mr Holmes!) showed up here and started posting comments in persona as Gandalf, I’d play right along. There are things I’d always wanted to ask Gandalf, anyway, mostly to do with conservation laws and magic. There was a person from Florida who emailed me a few years ago, whose messages were so broken and unusual that I wondered if they were the output of a markov chain generator. [mark v. shaney]
Throughout the kerfuffle, it seemed as though some people were interested in figuring out who was whom and mapping the branching trees of sockpuppets. That’s only worthwhile if you believe that there should be a 1:1 mapping between personas on the internet, and butts in chairs behind a keyboard. I recall being puzzled that anyone cared and thinking “as long as transphobe isn’t posting transphobia I guess I won’t ban them.”
It’s not that I don’t care about transphobia, it’s that I don’t care about transphobe.