Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Blogging the Blog 11: Online No-one Knows I'm A Dog ... Or A Man

As regular readers of this blog, assuming there are some, will know I have maintained an interest in the art of blogging itself and the forms of behaviour it creates or has imposed upon it.  Thus, you will not be surprised that I read with interest, last month, the exposure of two renowned lesbian bloggers, Paula Brooks of LezGetReal as a 58-year old male construction worker from Ohio called Bill Graber and then Amina Abdullah Araf al Omari of a Gay Girl in Damascus (a blog I had stumbled across) as Tom McMaster, a 40-year old male student from Edinburgh.  I guess people should not be surprised that these two men have provoked the wrath of the lesbian community and many blog readers in general.  It is always painful to feel that you have been duped, and in this case for a number of years.  In addition, people took risks trying to find out what had happened to 'Amina' in the upheaval that has been plaguing Syria.  Note the quotations used here, I have lifted from various articles in 'The Guardian' newspaper.

The extent of the anger was shown by many commentators, e.g.:  Judy Dlugacz head of Olivia, a lesbian travel company: 'This is really an outrage.  We all need to be aware that there are people out there who will abuse the blogosphere.' and 'Look at how much power he wielded controlling this. The fact that he created this illusion and that he enjoyed it so much, that he was perpetrating a hoax and had such a good time with it, that is pretty pathetic.'  Dlugacz almost answers her own questions.  If she has only now woken up to the fact that people are misusing the blogosphere then it has taken her a long time.  Of course, we know companies employ bloggers to promote their companies; universities now employ students to go into discussion groups to promote their university.  As with any media, you have always had to be careful about what you read/saw/heard.  To me it is surprising that people had more trust in blogs than they do in newspaper or television reports.  Is it simply the novelty of the medium which has won that trust.  Dlugacz is right, people love the power of pulling off the hoax, they can become addicted to power they wield.  All of us love to think that people listen to our views and value them, bloggers far more than the average person.  One interesting question is, if, rather than McMaster and Graber producing blogs they had written first-person novels from the perspective of the characters they created.  There would have been complaints, but I also expect that their clear ability to replicate the manners and language of an American or a Syrian lesbian would have been commended as skillful writing.  Men have written as women and even more often women have written as men in novels, this will not stop.  It is naive to think that somehow simply because something is a blog rather than a magazine story it has more truth in it.  This realisation, may be one reason for how angry commentators are.

Michael Triplett runner of the  National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association blog believes all bloggers would lose credibility. I think people are just going to be more suspect of people they don't know or people they don't have familiarity with.  Blogs are already being discredited as people sitting around in their pyjamas talking about news. Now you are talking about guys in pyjamas pretending to be women in their pyjamas it really makes it even more of a credibility concern.' and 'There is almost something pathological about it.  I really don't get the idea of wanting to take on an entirely different person, especially a group that you have no affinity with.'  This is a foolish view.  Bloggers will not lose any more credibility than they currently hold.  Again, I find it incredible that people that sophisticated web savvy people did not read these blogs without a greater level of judgement and now are furious that due to their lack of perception/thought/care (traits I admit I share) were deceived.  

Triplett also seems to move in very narrow circles if he thinks that wanting to take on a different persona is something peculiar.  He clearly does not get out much to bars or clubs of an evening.  I have encountered both men and women pretending to be something that they were not; how many celebrities fabricate their ages, where they were born, their tastes, etc.  There is a lot of pretending to be other people, just look at the quantity of online material produced by transvestites with names, clothing and mannerisms very different from what they truly are.  The internet including blogs is ideal as it allows sustained construction of a persona.  Very few people appear online with their full proper name, partly for security reasons.  The bulk of contributions use a name that is not their real one.  Even when people like celebrities do feature their names (or in fact their stage names) then they are still weaving a persona that can be far removed from the genuine person.  

Personas are always created in any online context and gain a mass of their own very quickly.  I am a 43-year old white British man and yet even here on my blog, that has been contested with people arguing that my views suggest I must be a teenager or not British.  Thus, even when you create a genuine persona online it can quickly acrete extra elements, some which you might foster, others which you might be powerless to halt.  I think if McMaster and Graber had not attracted as much attention and interest as they were then their blogs would have faded away.  Ironically the lesbian community in wanting these types of lesbian bloggers out there sustained the continuation of these fakes.

Melanie Nathan, previously involved in LezGetReal said 'In my opinion, what Graber has done, to be a straight man calling himself a lesbian, is tantamount to impersonating an entire community.'  This is a clear exaggeration and as I note below, this easy assumption that an individual can somehow carry the identity of a whole sub-set of people, or in turn harm an entire sub-set by their behaviour is dangerous; not least it pretends that every grouping, no matter how large, is homogenous.  I am sure lesbians would be the first to emphasise that even within their community/communities, there is wide diversity and that is good.  No-one can ever represent an entire community, we always only represent a tiny element, one person.  Neither of the bloggers claimed to be speaking for a community, and in fact made themselves a sub-set even of that sub-set of people.  What intrigues me is why was so much attention paid to these two bloggers rather than other lesbian blogs?  I cannot believe that there are not women who can write as well or as engagingly.  Again, that realisation, that the fakes were garnering more interest than the real members of these communities, is understandably frustrating.  I believe these faked blogs lay down a challenge to other bloggers to raise their game.

It seems that McMaster's motives were about vanity, seeing if he could pull off the deception.  Both Graber and McMaster had a misguided view that through blogging a particular character in a particular setting (a lebsian mother with three children in the USA, a lesbian woman in Damascus - McMaster's wife is a specialist in the economy of Syria) then they could voice issues that they felt were being neglected.  Ironically they did achieve this.  Their blogs were well written and engaging.  For 3-4 years many lesbians who you might imagine could spot a fake, as well as non-lesbians like myself, believed they were genuine.  This suggests that neither wrote anything that contradicted what even lesbians would expect lesbians to write online.

Louise Carolin, deputy editor of a lesbian magazine 'Diva' likened the blogs to faked cancer blogs. 'They remind me of the cancer blogs that have been revealed as hoaxes, some of which have been a deliberate financial fraud, and others just an emotional one. Many lesbian women feel very isolated – especially if they're from a minority ethnic or religious background where it's difficult for them to come out – and the internet is somewhere they go for support and a sense of community.'  She notes that the Gay Girl in Damascus 'blog tapped into a lot of very real experiences for people in Syria and the Middle East, and also people here [the USA] who identified with it. I think it's absolutely indefensible.'  She added that 'MacMaster and Graber are unusual in that they chose to operate with such a huge sense of entitlement at such a high level, not just for a brief kick but apparently under the delusion that they were doing something good for lesbians. And they weren't just infiltrating a website or forum run by lesbian or bi women, but actually running the operations themselves.'  What 'operations' were they running?  Surely it was better that they were blogging rather than penetrating discussion groups which all of us know has long been going on.  People can easily click away from a blog.  There was no financial fraud and at the stage when McMaster realised he was having real world impact he came clean.  To assume that the two men were led by some male dominance ethic that they had to get out and control every space seems highly exaggerated.  The motives are common: there is an intellectual buzz in creating a character which people believe is real; it is rewarding to know people are listening to you.

Susie Orbach a psychotherapist has said that in being lebsians online the men were engaging in a 'double inversion – exploiting the 'illegitimacy' of the person they were impersonating to give themselves legitimacy'.  This is an interesting element.  A lot of white men do not realise that they are the dominant socio-economic group in the world.  With the disappearance of class politics they have even been stripped of that 'tribe'.  When equal opportunities policies in UK companies emphasise the protected characteristics of gender, ethnicity, religion, sexuality and only recently race, white young and middle aged men can come out feeling that they lie outside all of the Venn diagram circles.  In addition, they seem by automatic default to be the wrongdoers in any scenario.  In the current economic climate men can feel discarded and at the back of the queue.  In the old days in the UK at least, they would have at least been able to link with others of their social class and complain about the greedy bosses or the lazy workers as appropriate, but with the 'me first' ethos, even that consolation has gone.  

All of us like to feel special, to have people pay attention to us, so I am not at all surprised that in a context in which you can pretend to be what you like that men adopt this 'double inversion' basically so that they feel they are being listened to.  The vast majority of men are not oppressors or sustainers of a patriarchical society but like all people they hate being ignored and having learnt or been taught which groups are focused upon right across companies, they see that to put themselves in that category, even only briefly can relieve their sense of uselessness or being ignored.  Ironically the decline of feminism and the sexualisation of society is not helping this as whilst women are being pushed into submissive roles and dress once more, men are being assumed to be the strong earners which of course conflicts with the current socio-economic pattern, making them feel even more redundant and keen to doubly invert that position, even in just one context, to find some relief for that sense of being discarded.

This fear by white men has been identified by the Pakistani female writer Iman Qureshi, though she sees it as stemming from egotism rather than a lack of ego.  She said 'I think the rise of identity politics – a concerted effort to give marginalised people a voice – has made some white heterosexual men a little paranoid or insecure, so they invent an oppression and position themselves as victims. I would assume MacMaster felt ostracised from his 'own people', as it were, and as a result took on a persona in which he felt he could be heard without criticism. This seems to me to be a hero complex that's really a very smug delusion – 'Look at me, look at how I'm standing up for oppressed people.''.  I do not agree that it is a hero complex, because neither blogger was really standing up for the people, they were seeking to situate themselves actually in that group.  Carolin feels that they were misguided allies of lesbians, but I think she misunderstands the need the men had.  Whilst their blogs did raise issues relevant to lesbians and in fact women in general, the driver was more that for once it gave them a context in which people would take time to read their words ironically without prejudice.  If they had done like me and created a blog with their true identities, you can guarantee they would have long ago been censured or more likely never attracted readers.

The irony is, that each white man seems to have to carry the burden of blame not only for the behaviour of every other white man in the world, but all of those throughout history, going at least back to 18th century slavery if not further.  This is one reason why people in this category are liable to seek a different identity as they know that whenever they challenge anything they can be simply thrown back by the charge of 'men are rapists', 'white men ran the slave trade' and so on.  This behaviour remains acceptable though it is no longer acceptable, for example, to blame all Germans, Japanese, Chinese, Mongolians, Spanish, etc., whether men or women, for the atrocities committed by their ancestors.  As a white man operating in the public arena, you can certainly feel you are carrying a kind of 'original sin' around with you, that you are complicit in every cruel action carried out these days, simply because of what you are.  No protestations or even demonstration of your sense of equality can scrub that stain off you.  It is important to recognise that we are all individuals and we are not even responsible for the behaviour of our parents let alone people of the same ethnic group/gender that we have never met. 

I do not charge every English woman with the horrors inflicted by Mary I or the warfare of Empress Matilda or all the colonial atrocities committed across the British empire during the reign of Queen Victoria.  Thus, why should I be charged with the offences carried out by British slavers or colonialists when no-one in my family was ever any of those things and why should I feel guilt because an American man decides to beat or rape a woman simply because he is of the same ethnic group as me and of the same gender?  I condemn all of these things and can understand how many men feel that the blame apportioned on them inhibits them speaking on any issue in a public forum. Yes, we need to be held responsible for our own behaviour but the crimes of others should not be used as a tool, as it is by default in Western blogosphere space, to effectively shut down white male contributions.

Where this tendency comes from can be seen from the comments of another female writer, Beatrix Campbell.  She has seen the blogs as typical of the desire by men to dominate all forms of media and get into spaces where they would not normally appear/be permitted and thus by such actions, in fact to continue to marginalise already marginalised groups in these contexts which would normally allow them status.  To Campbell, McMaster 'clearly doesn't have a clue about what the politics of identity has tried to reveal, which is, first, that we are not all white men, and second, that white men are always treated as the supreme identity. Here he is, doing the same thing – claiming the virtue of representing a repressed condition, in a repressed part of the world, deciding that he is the person who will give that voice. That is the supreme irony. Here we have a boundaryless white American boy absolutely habituated to a kind of supremacy, and reiterating that supremacy through his blog. It speaks to an omnipotence that doesn't understand its own limits.'  This entirely misses the point.  The motivations do not stem from any sense of 'supremacy' or 'omnipotence' in fact the complete reverse.  Here were men feeling left out for not having any of the stated protected characteristics who knew, that, as a consequence their writing would attract no attention, or at best, that of people, who as intelligent men they would not really want to engage with, found strategies that allowed them to be heard.  Clearly this massaged their egos.  In addition, there was probably a sexual frisson, as both men are straight and McMaster is married, they no doubt like the company of women and to engage intimately with them (and ironically flirted online with each other), so there could have been a thrill to brighten a dull day.

The false representation of yourself in the online context has long been noted. Tim Jordan noted in 1999 '"cyberspace will be liberatory because gender, race, age, looks or even 'dogness' are potentially absent or alternatively fabricated or exaggerated with unchecked creative license for a multitude of purposes both legal and illegal'; summarising views expressed by pioneer John Gilmore as early as 1996.  Furthermore, David Trend wrote in 2001 of the ability to 'computer crossdress' as well as the 'freedom to 'pass' as a privileged group'.  Whilst lesbians may not feel they are a privileged group, we all need to recognise that for many equal opportunities initiatives, whilst very necessary have a by-product of actually making marginalised groups, if not privileged, then at least more 'legitimate' than the white male persona.

I can understand the anger from lesbians, other women and other online readers to feel that they were successfully duped by not just one but two bloggers over quite a period of time.  I was one of those who was duped. However, to present the incident as some sinister conspiracy by men to control yet another media outlet so that they can sustain, even extend white male hegemony, misses so much.  What we have seen is very well constructed fictions that are worthy of a leading novelist.  They were probably done to pep up bruised egos feeling discarded by Western societies' focus on protected characteristics.  However, the criticisms that these two blogs have broken some unwritten code about online behaviour, especially the creation of personas, is incredibly naive and betrays an ignorance of how the online world, whether the blogosphere or elsewhere has operated right from its birth.  Peter Steiner's cartoon 'On The Internet No-one Knows I'm A Dog' appeared in 1993, yet, that simple observation seems to have been forgotten by people who through their professions, should know that principle even more than the average person.  What seems most incredible is not the original deceptions, but the response that has revealed that so many commentators who should know better, in their love affair with the blogosphere have forgotten lessons taught to primary school children about internet usage.

P.P. The criticisms continue to roll in even as I have been writing this posting, now McMaster and people who have supported him are condemned on the basis that one commentator noted: 'western audiences will only embrace Arab gay movements if those movements attempt to mimic western gay movements'.  This seems to go beyond the lesbian condemnation of the blogs and yet, again seems naive.  Of course, people flock to what is interpreted in a way they find easy to consume.  Few Westerners read Arabic (very few read Chinese or Hindi or know any language bar their own), so they are going to be attracted to something that is in a format they can consume. 

What is intriguing on this basis is that they were drawn to a lesbian supposedly in Syria, a country that means very little to most people in the West, it does not even have oil!  I accept that gays in Arabic countries might not want the support or even the interest of Westerners, but that goes against the sense of shared community that ironically blogs and other internet communication fosters.  To some degree, I feel that this incident highlights that ultimately whilst people may be interested in a blog because they feel an empathy (however much that empathy is stimulated by a fiction), a curiosity or a frisson, but that people stay with a blog due to good and stimulating writing.

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