Something strange just happened.
In fact, I would go ahead and label this experience as downright uncanny – yes, in all its Freudian glory – I just experienced the uncanny.
I was happily scouring the internet during my lunch break when I happened to stumble upon a website my friend used to swear upon. Much like Plenty of Fish, she met a ton of men through this site and is now happily dating one of her catches.
And so, after realizing I was now on the site my friend used to meet her boyfriend — damn my curiosity, I decided to look for her profile.
I boast to my boyfriend that he doesn’t know the internet like I know the internet, and he would retort in defiance: “Well, I don’t want to know the internet like you know the internet!” And yes, I admit, I have visited some very dark parts of the internet that I would be far too ashamed to admit, but that comes with my overly curious nature. But today, of all days, I may have touched a part of the internet I wish I had never touched.
I typed in her old high school email and got a hit instantly. It actually scared me how careless she was with these sort of things, as she didn’t even use an alternate email to register for a site I’m sure she wouldn’t want to be found in. But I confess – as soon as I saw that this profile was undeniably hers – I felt the old rush of adrenaline – as if I had just discovered something precious.
A part of being a writer, I believe, is that titillating rush you get when you discover a side to a person you would never have predicted. To us, you’re all characters — waiting to be explored, waiting to be written. So when we’re afforded little glimpses of personalities you would otherwise have preferred to remain hidden, it gives us a feeling of superiority. Superiority because as a writer, I am quite aware that people are extremely careful of the kind of persona they convey to different members of their social circle.
We all filter. We all selectively show parts of ourselves to other people, and hide parts from others.
This is why the internet is a treasure trove of secrets. People don masks in the internet thinking they would never be discovered, so they have usernames and aliases that they use on sites they don’t want to be discovered in. But most people don’t think twice — most people use the same username they have on their old high school emails, on their old xbox live membership. And yes, most people aren’t as morbidly curious as I am, but on the off chance that you do decide to sign up for a website you wouldn’t want to be discovered in? Pro-tip? Use an alias.
I guess you can tell where I’m going with this.
I did find my friend’s profile, but it didn’t afford me the same satisfaction I would usually get when I dig up some dirt from a person I don’t like to begin with. For one, she’s a very dear friend of mine so stumbling on this profile felt a lot more like a betrayal, than it did discovery. Second – and you probably saw this one coming – she posted photos I know for a DAMN FACT she wouldn’t want any of her friends seeing — she was in provocative poses I have never seen her in and after seeing it, I immediately felt ashamed, bewildered and deeply troubled.
Obviously the next thing I did was confront her about it – and she was absolutely mortified that her profile was still up. I teased her a bit and said, “No wonder you got all those guys messaging you!” to which I received a 10 minute lecture about how I should mind my own beeswax, which made me laugh even harder. But this doesn’t mask the feeling I got when I first saw her profile — it was definitely uncanny, because she’s so familiar, but I was discovering her in an environment that was so public, and yet at the same time, was intended to be intensely private.
Which then made me wonder about the personas we create when we’re on the internet.
The internet affords us anonymity because of its great expanse. It is much like entering a foreign country and starting anew – and within its enormity, we convince ourselves that we can be lost in it, and that our identities will never be exposed amongst the countless nameless profiles. We don’t call each other by name – we call each other by numbers and aliases – lilyflower23, or hyperactive_freak44, and it somehow adds to the security of anonymity.
We distance ourselves from our identities by creating usernames, and it makes us forget how easy it is to be discovered.
With the internet we are led to believe that we are free to be whoever we want to be, and find other people with the same interests and quirks as we do. And because we find comfort in its vastness, we become careless in what we do hide.
I believe the internet has given birth to a new kind of uncanny: and that is discovering friends we have in real life, in websites they don’t tell us they visit. Whether it’s discovering them in an Irritable Bowel Syndrome forum, or a hidden Tumblr blog, our lives have been mapped in the internet in one form or another. And even if you are a decided hermit, who refuses to sign up for Facebook or any other social media platform, it’s pretty much guaranteed that there’s a trace of you somewhere — your information is still out there, from photos people have of you, to your name being mentioned in someone else’s blog.
This may seem insignificant to you – but think about the show Catfish. Catfish started out as a documentary about a photographer, Nev Schulman, who fell in love with a woman he met online. The documentary then takes an unexpected turn when it becomes about Nev trying to figure out who the woman really was – whether or not she was the woman in the pictures he had sent her, and how much of what she told him was true.
Due to its popularity, MTV decided to do a reality show based on the documentary and it now chronicles the adventures of Nev and Max as they scour America to help people in online relationships determine the truth behind the person they’ve been communicating with. More often than not, it turns out they were hiding something – and that they have comfortably donned the masks of other beautiful people they found online and assumed their personalities. The reasons they give for doing this, varies – and its authenticity and simplicity is what makes their stories so relatable, and yet so saddening. The whole premise of the show wouldn’t have existed twenty years ago – who would’ve thought that the first instinct of humankind, upon gaining access to the world – is to pretend to be someone else entirely?
The internet has assumed multiple roles in our modern society, but the role it has become for most of us, is a means of escape. Whether or not it’s escaping from others, or escaping from ourselves, the internet has definitely made it easier for us to alter our reality.
When George Orwell wrote “1984”, the biggest threat to our livelihood was Big Brother eyeing our every move. Unbeknownst to Orwell, a mere 64 years later, us as a society, have created our own version of Big Brother, by voluntarily giving away our information (and those of our friends and family, albeit indirectly) in websites like Facebook, Foursquare, Twitter and Instagram.
Your privacy and identity – as you know it – is about to change in the next few years. Welcome to the uncanny.