i belong to a mailing list where we discuss crime and detective fiction; over the weekend a link was posted to a news story that one of the mailing list participants thought would have made a good mystery plot. the gist of this story is that one member of an online forum created a fake identity to post to the same forum. the existing member was male like most of the rest of the forum and he made his new identity female and called her nowheremom. since being female in an all male environment creates interest the forum member ended up creating a relationship between himself and nowheremom to deter the other forum members from her. then eventually tiring of the charade of carrying on two online lives he killed off his female creation. on the whole i find this story amusing and resourceful and it’s easy to see how one step led to another and how the act became more elaborate. it doesn’t scare me or make me cynical.
i talked about this with my boyfriend last night and we joked about how easily this story could make us look like frauds. i met darren on the same mailing list mentioned above. he joined the list a couple of months after me and was one of only a handful of men on a female dominated list. we exchanged emails, got to be friends, met up for a drink and the rest is history. i’ve met some of the other members of the mailing list whilst on a trip to america, none of them have met darren. i hadn’t posted to the mailing list for several months, neither had darren, we both began posting again recently. i know that darren’s real, i can show you photos of us, get our families to verify that there are two of us, show you separate usenet histories for each of us dating from long before we met, you can find out all kinds of things about each of us on the web, in short i can find a whole wealth of supporting evidence for the pair of us being real people.
last week someone died on the web. a nineteen year old from kansas called kaycee nicole had been updating a website using blogger, the same software i use to update this site. i first came across her site about six months ago, she was writing about her fight with cancer and had been for sometime. her mum, debbie, had also been writing about kaycee’s illness from her perspective on the same website. both their sites were designed and hosted by a canadian in hong kong known as bwg. kaycee’s site was interesting to read, uplifting and optimistic. i’ve read it from time to time, not regularly but enough to feel saddened when i read of her death last week and to go back and read through bits of her website. perhaps the website was too optimistic, perhaps her life, terminal illness apart, was too perfect. but this is the web and we choose what parts of our lives to show here.
i’ve come across a number of people on the net who have died, and for some of them i can cite a huge amount of supporting evidence for their existence despite the fact that i’ve never met them. i used to lurk on the uk.singles newsgroup in 1994 because the community of friends there was fun to read about but i was too shy to ever join in. one of the posters there was a woman called menya who was always interesting and i watched as she met and later married one of the other posters. she also developed breast cancer and despite appearing to have beaten it at one point she died last february. i’d watched her life from a distance, voyeurism of a kind i guess, and i was sorry to see her go. she was real, she was on the web with no hint of persona about her and all the details, photos, relationships, friends and obituaries were real.
over this weekend it has emerged that kaycee nicole never existed, and that debbie, who so far appears to be a real person, wrote the kaycee’s weblog herself by meshing together the stories of three cancer sufferers she had known.
kaycee had protected her privacy on the net by not using her surname, by using fake names for her friends, by not posting photographs, by changing those details of her life that would allow her to be identified. lots of people do this and i don’t believe that they are all figments of the imagination.
i’m not the only person to have wondered from time to time if the world is some trumanesque show that is just put on for my entertainment. like wondering if the tree that falls in the forest makes a sound if there is no one to hear it, does the world still function when i’m not there to notice? does it matter whether someone is real or only whether i perceive them to be real?
so inside my head, where perhaps i’m the only person who exists, i’m trying to figure out if kaycee is real or not. hundreds believed in her and defended her. bwg who hosted her website spoke to her on the phone, she sent emails to many people, she sent presents. was she as real as nowheremom? was she as real as menya? was she as real as darren? did she exist until the moment the balance tipped from it being more likely than not that she did exist to it being more likely that she didn’t?
i’ve got all existentialist now, but this is a tangent to what i want to say, which is to point out that the barrier between fact and fiction is not a solid one. each of us chooses what features of ourselves others get to see. not only on the net but every day in the real world. sometimes we miss things out and don’t tell people everything, other times we change ourselves consciously for any number of reasons not all of which are underhand or fraudulent. sometimes people will change identities, act out new lives and invent whole new pasts for themselves, sometimes people find fantasies more engaging than reality and choose to think of them as real, sometimes people just want to entertain. i don’t think this is anything new. perhaps the story that debbie told with kaycee as a major player could only have been told on the web, but i don’t think she did anything wrong and i’m no more cynical of the people i come across on the web now than i was before. certainly i was duped, but i don’t feel conned. whilst kaycee’s life, and death, were fiction, there was fact there too, and though i have a good idea that certain things were definitely fact and other things were definitely fiction i don’t know where the actual boundaries between the two lay. and neither do i in anyone else’s life, including, at the extreme, my own.