Kingdom Come at Roundabout Underground + me + Internet friendships, part 2
Continued from here. This personal essay reflects on blogging and the development of my Internet friendships and was provoked by my visit to Kingdom Come in November.
I mentioned that one motivation for me to see Kingdom Come while I was in NYC for Love, Love, Love was its potential to dovetail with important parts of my Richard Armitage fandom experience — the fact that the self and the relationships that developed out of it were exclusively constituted virtually. My self here is named “Servetus,” a pseudonym that predated my fan experience. She was quickly nicknamed “Serv” (probably by people who were frustrated by the spelling confusion with the famous “Severus”) and she is very like me in most ways, but not in others. In some ways, Servetus is aspirational for me; in other ways, she is still experimenting. As Samantha does in the play, I quickly found that I had developed very close, even intense friendships with people I had no plan to meet. At the same time, I have developed intense enmities as well. Each has surprised me in a different way. But I never intended, when I started, to meet even one fellow fan or reader.
This blog does not celebrate the euphoric group meetup in the same way that some other bloggers in the fandom do, even while casting no aspersions on the widespread enjoyment of that experience in our fandom. It’s fairly rare that I meet another fan in real life, I try to do it one-on-one if I can, and I avoid doing it casually. My reluctance has never been about you, the reader, but all about me. To meet me is not quite to meet Servetus. In contrast to Samantha’s “Dom” in the play, Servetus never gave herself significant real-life features that I do not have. I’m not using Servetus to pretend to be a woman, or a (now ex-)professor, or multi-lingual, or whatever. Servetus writes a selective portrait of my life, but she doesn’t fundamentally misrepresent it, either. Servetus and I share an education and a knowledge base and a fundamental curiosity about the world. Servetus and I see the world in the same way, although I hope she expresses herself more clearly than I do. Servetus tries to follow certain kinds of rules about what she says, just as I do in reality. Sometimes we succeed; often we don’t. We are both works in progress. But I think Servetus as she has developed over the years is an accurate, authentic emotional portrait of me, and although sometimes she lies by omission, at other times, perhaps often, she is more honest or open than I would have been in the same situation. Still, Servetus inevitably miscommunicates, like all humans; moreover, all of online communication involves a heavy level of inferences inserted by the reader that may or not be true-to-life or productive. Servetus leaves some things open to inference on purpose.
Servetus cannot go to meetups without me, though, and I worry that people who meet me will be expecting to meet (their picture of) Servetus and inevitably be disappointed. In that sense, if you want to meet Servetus, you meet her most fully here, on the screen, because technically, this screen is the only place that Servetus really exists at all. When you meet me, she is a persona I carry with me, and I have developed a meta-position on what she writes that I sometimes discuss. But I suspect that just as Layne really missed Samantha / “Dom,” most readers would probably prefer Servetus to me.
That conflation is by the bye most of the time. Adopting this sort of pseudonymous identity has a creative, transformative quality, and Servetus has made it possible for me to do things I would not have imagined possible; most notably, starting to think of myself as a writer, and abandoning my role as a professor. On a more fundamental level, I think I realized fairly early into blogging here that once source of my deep unhappiness was that I was suffering from a strongly fragmented identity, that I had few or no real life friends who could accept all the incongruous things I am/was in combination: the Jew and the former Christian, the girl from the country who loves the city, the academic who reads trashy novels, the leftie who grew up in a conservative household and still believes many of the things she learned in that atmosphere, and so on. Nobody gets that, I think, we all dream of total acceptance and understanding, but nobody gets it, even from a parent or the most devoted lover or partner (and that failure may have advantages to it). And I have gotten a lot of acceptance here, maybe more than I could have expected or gotten anywhere else. But my pieces were so scattered that I was pretending all the time and being alone was the only relief I got from the act. What was even worse (and I sometimes still see this reflected in the things that former students say to me these days) was that people thought I was being authentic even while I was hiding behind a series of masks. Authenticity was itself a performance, which was something I tried hard to say about Richard Armitage back in the day.
So maybe the attraction of Servetus was that at least when she wrote, I didn’t feel like I was lying. What a paradox — and it may answer my question about how Layne and Samantha can claim that they are their truest selves even as they lie to each other. Blogging has taught me a lot about myself, about the possibilities and limitations of integration, and many other things, that I treasure, that I was hoping to get from this writing. I don’t know that Servetus is my truest self. But in many ways I would like to be her.
And know that I am not always. I met a fan this year, after a sort of spontaneous decision, and after we met, she said (paraphrasing), “You seem to be more forceful on your blog than you are in person.” It wasn’t a criticism and I didn’t take it that way. But it did make me think. I do wish I could be more forceful. I hope that Servetus still has things to teach me.
internet friendships in general
However, like Samantha in the play, when I started this blog — really an act of self-preservation from the storm of feelings I was experiencing at the time, the flood of inescapable thoughts — I never really envisioned what the consequences could be. Right now I am thinking in particular of the sort of contacts I would have with its readers, the sorts of comments and private messages and revelations I would receive — let alone meeting some of you. I was so focused on the consequences of the task for myself and my own decisions that I didn’t really think about other people (with the exception of Richard Armitage, but that is a long, separate story). Later, of course, the question of whether I wanted an audience for my writing, and if so, which one, raised its head. But that is a separate problem, too.
What I want to get at today is the whole question about how online, we construct (“curate”) not only ourselves to determine what others can “see” and “know,” but in order for communication to work, we add attributes to the people we talk to as well, to facilitate these discussions. In practice, the adding of attributes can occur in different ways. To name some of the possibilities: the interlocutor can tell us more about herself; we can ask questions; we can make associations based on what we know about the other person; we can decide either that we know enough about the person to make those associations; or we can decide we have enough information and do not need further additions or attributions for the purpose of the communication. As in the play, at some point we decide we have sufficient information and additional information begins to challenge the picture we have developed. Samantha / “Dom” was satisfied with her growing relationship with Layne / “Courtney,” and both women happily added the attributes the other supplied, along with their edifice of reactions to them. I didn’t make detailed notes about this play, other than remembering their mutual favorite film, but there were other things as well — foods, attitudes, a mantra, and so. Sharing these details built a solid mutual world — as each reflected on what the other said and replied “me too up to and until Samantha asked for a fatal piece of information — another picture — at which point the new information destroyed the picture the two had been building up together and Samantha bailed. The point is not only that the picture proved that Layne was not Courtney — yes, that is a concrete problem, and it’s an amusing, paradoxical moment of the play that the concrete problem isn’t that Samantha isn’t a man — but the two had never experienced each other face-to-face anyway; in that sense, they had lost nothing. What they had lost was their own private world, and the pictures of each other that they had built up for themselves. And it is ultimately this — these pictures of each other they have developed, and their loyalty to these pictures — that draw them back together.
my internet friendships
But I think one of the issues about Internet friendships that I experience regularly on the Internet is this likelihood / desire to / capacity to attribute that I just mentioned. My RL and Servetus’ social media presences are segregated — fewer than 2 percent of my RL contacts are shared with Servetus and fewer than 1 percent of my social media “friends” are people I haven’t met in reality — because I use these tools in different ways for different things. My RL social media are set on the highest privacy settings for almost everything, and I try to make a rule never to discuss certain things (chiefly politics) with strangers when I see them in other people’s feeds. It’s not so much that my RL social media are easy to navigate. I have FB friends ranging from the almost-ninety-year-old woman who babysat and potty-trained me in the early 1970s to former students I taught last year to exSO’s niece, and so on, people from almost every phase of my life with every stripe of religion and politics, and I talk about those things openly, and so do they, and some real misunderstandings have arisen. Rather, the feeds are set up to prevent interruptions by enraged strangers or negative attributions by people who don’t know me, and I know who the people in the feed are and they know who I am. When someone says something objectionable, I should have a series of real attributions to assign to them and when I say something objectionable, they should know who it is who’s speaking.
So, to give an example: if my junior high science teacher says something positive about Donald Trump, I have two entire years in his classroom to remember and consider that he is a person worth my discursive respect. If I make a statement about Hillary Clinton, he has a preteen me that he liked and remembered well enough to friend on FB 35 years later with which he can fill in the holes. It’s not perfect, and I’m not saying that no RL friends ever fight over politics or on FB, but simply that the mutual awareness and the positive attributions we make influence such interactions in a way that they do not in my fandom social media.
My experience, anyway, is that the need to attribute is much greater in the fandom context. If I look at the responses on FB to some of Richard Armitage’s statements with political components, I see very largely people I don’t know and with whom I have no history. After seven years I recognize a lot of names and aliases but not all of them by far. And yeah — I don’t like a lot of what I see there, I think much of it is ill-informed and based on false assumptions and some of it is downright disturbing. But that happens because I don’t have those attributions to make and I can’t possibly make positive attributions for dozens of total strangers with whom I have only one known thing in common. And Twitter only exacerbates this situation, insofar as it not only facilitates, but even encourages people to pop in on the conversations of total strangers simply because they share an interest in a particular topic.
Servetus’ internet friendships
And now it starts to get more personal, I suppose, and I beg your forgiveness ahead of time for hurt feelings that what I am writing could cause. Please be aware that I’ve always thought my Internet friendships were real and meaningful. How to be a friend in this setting is also something I’ve had to learn. I also agree with the play’s general point that certain kind of Internet-based friendships can’t be sustained under some circumstances (if there’s an expectation that the people meet, for example, other factors come into play). There’s no way to overcome a real dealbreaker if the dealbreaker, once revealed, is something that has to be present for the relationship to work, if the relationship can’t change to accommodate it.
But assuming the possibility of these friendships: over time, it’s true, just as we do with RL friends, we develop similar histories with people we meet on the Internet and we become willing to make positive attributions and construct a mutual world with them. This is true not only for the small group (in my case, anyway) who later become RL friends, but for the people with whom we interact regularly: you, the reader / commentator. Only five percent of visitors to this blog ever leave a comment. However, the vast majority of people who do comment here have become well enough known to me that I am influenced to make positive attributions — because I learn more about you or we simply have a long history of discussions. In the short term, absent signs of obvious problems (a first comment that is full of rage), I want to give everyone who is unknown to me the benefit of the doubt. A bigger problem is the accumulation of negative attributions around a particular person, because there is simply no way to get rid of the rare people to whom I have made a series of such attributions, unless they break a rule in the comment policy OR I tell them point-blank to get lost. In RL these people simply wouldn’t be friends; they would never even enter my RL social media. I’m trying now to be more forceful about the latter when it occurs in the interest of saving myself time and energy.
In the absence of real-life knowledge of a person, the positive attributions we make are central to our Internet friendships, and so, when we meet someone on the Internet and become friends only through the Internet, we always add our own value to these relationships. I think this is part of why these friendships become intense quickly. And also part of why, when they end, it’s so painful — because we lose not only the friend, but the value added that we have created ourselves.
The first really strong fan friendship I made on the Internet was like this. The friend was someone who popped up spontaneously, introduced herself, and with whom I got along like a house afire. We had so much in common, apart from an inexplicable attraction to Richard Armitage: we learned that we were both religious but also critical of religion, we both cared about educational issues, we both loved music, we both loved to read, we both liked challenging discussions, both of us enjoyed thinking about politics and could live with our disagreements. She is really intelligent. She has a wicked sense of humor. I looked forward to seeing a message from her in my inbox. We talked on the phone a few times, we chatted on gmail. The more I learned, the more I liked her.
If I look at this list of affinities now, I realize it’s no more than a list of things that might match us on a dating site — many of us love to read, like music, and so on — they are things to talk about or to enjoy mutually. In the end, though, it’s the meaning that we make out of the affinities that really matters, and even as my knowledge of my friend grew, I made my own meanings out of the things she said. I gave her positive attributions in my thoughts, and she wasn’t there in real life to modify or contradict them — and I responded to the things she said by adjusting my own picture. As this was a two-sided process, she would have done the same things although I’m not sure I could tell you what her “list” of affinities with me would have included. As we both spent a lot of time at our computer screens, there were many exchanges. I communicated with her at least five times a week.
Our breakup, when it came, was tumultuous and lasted about six months. It started with something we were doing together on-line — tensions that grew out of decision-making in which I said and did things that seemed reasonable to me but made her angry. It had a middle phase in which I revealed a feature, an interest that I wanted to talk about, that she did not want to be associated with. She felt that because our friendship was widely known, our shared discussions and activities would come to be characterized by this interest and she felt that if I proceeded on the path, she herself and what we had done together would be dirtied. I had revealed a feature that did not fit in the picture she’d built up of me, and which she could not accept. And in the end, I stopped speaking to her because she also said something that — had I been paying better attention, had I not been making all kinds of attributions to her actions that fit the picture of who I wanted her to be, rather than who she is — I found inconceivably hurtful. She, like me, turned out to have qualities that the pictures we’d built of each other had not anticipated.
The end of this friendship hurt me badly. In some ways, those experiences have influenced my behavior in Internet friendships ever since. I am certainly more cautious and I try to be aware of my own process of assigning meaning to the qualities of strangers who introduce themselves in my email or on my blog. But in the case of this particular friendship, I think the wounded moments and the grief on my side stemmed not only from the problem that we disagreed or argued, or even that we turned out to be different people than we initially realized. These things also happen in real life friendships. There was an additional component: I think that when our Internet friendship finally ended, I was sorrowful not just because I lost her but also because I lost the beautiful picture of her that I had built. In that sense, intense Internet friendships can seem almost like romances, with the component of the ideal picture of the admired being more prominent than in their real life counterparts.
I don’t want to be friends with her now; the picture I built of her lies in ruins and I don’t know how I could put it back together again. (So, in case that friend is reading — this is not a public plea for a rapprochement in which I am not interested.) This incapacity is absolutely my fault; although I try to be aware of and work against the tendency, while I don’t seek payback, I do hold grudges and I do not believe in every case that this is a negative quality, as I allow Servetus to cultivate it as well. Still I miss her, I miss the feelings of those days, and I miss the picture of her that I had. I miss admiring her, I miss the wit that I experienced when I “spoke” with her, I miss how she seemed to understand me — even though she ultimately didn’t, I miss the virtual emotional or intellectual sphere in which I felt she did, even if my sadness over the lost of that picture apparently doesn’t outweigh my self-protectiveness.
So even if it’s not a capacity I share, I understand what it was that pulled Layne and Samantha back together over the screen, even after the deception had been revealed: that sense of intimacy and the sense of occupying a sphere in which one feels one can be honest and nonetheless understood without penalty. Ultimately, that circumstance was only possible because they constructed each other as people who could provide the total acceptance that I suggested we can’t find from others in real life, or even in blogging. But in a way, it’s not such a horrible thing, between Internet friends. It is not real in a tangible way; it might not survive a face to face meeting. But it does sustain a great deal of emotion, it allows a breath-taking openness, it makes friendships seem like realms of possibility rather than evaluative spaces. It allows for shared self-exploration. If it is an illusion, still it is a beautiful, incomparable one.