My Life As A Sock Puppet
In addition to writing this blog, I am a commenter in a couple of on-line communities. Every virtual neighborhood is slightly different in tone and demeanor, but they rely on a lot of mutual trust to remain stable. One I’m a regular in is particularly tight knit. If you are from there, you know who you are. If you are a curious observer, it’s not hard to find.
In this group there is a core group of regulars that go so far as to socialize and relate with each other in the real world. It has a particularly convivial atmosphere free of much of the humorless earnestness found so many other places on the internet. Like any virtual environment with open doors, it attracts its share of trolls, strawmen, and doppelgangers. They usually raise a ruckus, get bored, and eventually leave. In the meantime all sorts of shit is stirred, hackles are raised, and tension is heightened.
More than once, the issue of treatment vis-à-vis newcomers to this group has been raised hypothetically. Is there a clique and inner circle? Is the barrier to entry too high? Is the group too intolerant of differing opinions? Is there an orthodoxy that can’t be questioned? For reasons I still can’t quite pinpoint I wanted to find out. I would prefer to rationalize my motives but I fear it may have been some morbid mix of hubris, arrogance, and mean-spiritedness.
For this prank, I created a personality typical of the many drive-by trolls the site gets, a rabid libertarian with a propensity to SHOUT in CAPS LOCK. I made some ground rules for myself:
- I would never personally attack another commenter.
- I would never engage in a conversation between my “real” self and my alter ego.
- I would not take my fake opinions seriously.
- I would try to be provocative without being offensive.
I also couldn't decide how outrageous I wanted to be. My first couple of comments were arguably over-the-top offensive and treated as such. It pained me to be rightfully dressed down by people for opinions I didn’t really hold. I was never willing to go full throttle and I began to pull my punches. Not surprisingly, the better I behaved, the better I got treated. The Golden Rule works to some discernable degree. Still, I knew I had ruffled feathers. Not everybody was taking to the kinder, gentler version of my bombthrower.
I also wondered how long and how far I could and/or should take it. I toyed with being a fake blogger and even set up a website with a few red meat posts. I never published the link, but at least one fellow commenter was able to follow enough breadcrumbs to find it. I have no idea how. People on the web have scary mad skilz.
I got sucked into the role playing and found myself expending too much psychic energy on my other personality. I found myself upset when argued with. I got angry when I was ridiculed, even though it was what I was going for. I was even more dismayed when I was ignored. The silent treatment has always been the most brutal punishment to me.
I also had no end game or exit strategy. I imagined I would eventually grow tired and abandon the personality and it would become just another of the many anonymous provocateurs that had come and gone.
But like many sociopaths, I wanted to be found out and stopped. There was an ego effect at work that made me drop clues. My alias was an obvious spooneristic pun that one anonymous member figured out pretty quickly. And of course, I did get caught. I doubt I'm the first multiple personality on that blog, but I am the clumsiest. I posted a comment under my “real” alias that obviously belonged to the golem. I had nearly done this earlier in the day and knew the risk, but I had to get one last cryptic shot in. The second I hit the submit button I was embarrassed, terrified, and relieved. I frantically kept hitting refresh knowing that I would be called out. I apologized to the group, but I know it’s not enough.
I went too far and I’m glad it’s over. The people on the other end of a wire have actual feelings and emotions. To amuse myself I have damaged real friendships. Maturity is respecting rights and accepting responsibility. That is why chat rooms filled with teenagers are such free-fire zones. They haven’t learned that words have meaning and consequences.
Social experiments always reveal way more about the testers than the subjects. Character is defined as how you behave when no one is watching. I learned that I had created one, but that I hadn’t shown any.
For Boodlers: Can I find redemption or forgiveness?
For Others: Have you ever posted anonymously or under a different identity just to troll?