Monday, January 30, 2006

Blogging relationships, fan relationships, & real relationships

Dr. B has recently been putting things out about herself that people are likely to judge harshly. Her commenters, including me, are offering emotional support and advice, as all good readers of personal blogs do. Occasionally they suggest that Dr. B may be a bit at fault for her current predicament, and B, to her credit, takes this seriously.

But here’s the interesting thing, even more interesting than someone else’s marital troubles: Many commenters are asking whether they are friends offering support and advice, or readers. They emphasize the fakery and artifice that goes into an online personality. They even say things like this:
You - Dr. B. - should never forget that we are an audience. Nothing more; you and your family are characters that you construct and control for our amusement. Any advice or support we offer is not only useless, in this sense, its probably counterproductive.
And Frau Professora B says many things that support this distanced reading of the blogger/commenter relationship. In the original post of this sequence, now removed, she justified spilling personal details of her life because that's what a writer does. When she was accused of being dishonest with her readers, she wrote this:
I shall never understand why people who think that a writer is fundamentally dishonest is likely to suddenly realize this and admit it because a complete stranger points it out.
So what are we doing when we spend all this time online, chatting at each other? Are we creating fiction after fiction, or are we forming *real* relationships?

I want to answer this question the way that all bloggers do, by talking about myself. I also want to talk about the word ‘real’, which is useful and good, but prone to misuse. (This puts it in a category with words like ‘true’ and ‘self’, and in a different category than the word ‘nature’, which I think we should give up on altogether.)

Consider the following:

My relationship with Dr. B., whose blog a I check daily, who sometimes reads my blog, and who has sent me real live personal emails.

My relationship with Curt Cobain, whose work I loved, whose published life and professed attitudes I felt a connection to, whose suicide caused me genuine dismay, and who never knew a thing about me.

My relationship with my neighbor Ms. Vicky, who occasionally comes over for coffee, and who reads this blog but never comments. (Hi!)

My relationship with a mommy (Mommy A) in my child’s daycare co-op, whom I rarely say much to, but always thought was cute and charming.

All of these relationships are relationships with a public persona. They all involve a potential for falsification. Dr. B may be constructing fictions about her life on her blog. But then again, Mommy A could be a Satanist, conducting bizarre rituals in her basement, rather than the mild mannered Unitarian she claims to be. On the other hand, they all involve real affection, with varying degrees of intensity and reciprocation. I honestly hope Dr. B works out the issues she’s having, and when I offered her advice and support, it was the best advice I could give with the information I had.

No one would say that my relationship with Ms. Vicky is a relationship with a fictional persona, or not a real relationship, despite the potential for dissembling. (How did Chirp the Bird really die, anyway?) Similarly, I think I have a real relationship with Dr. B.

The problem is the ambiguity of the word ‘real’ and the attitudes it engenders in those who use it. ‘Real’ is sometimes used to talk about what is authentic. Thus we ask if a painting apparently by Rembrandt is real or fake. We also use real to talk about existence. Thus I frequently claim that human caused global warming is real, but, say, unicorns, are not.

The urge to dismiss some relationships as not real I think comes from confusing these two notions of real. The important thing about all the relationships I named above is that they were with actual existing people. There are cases where one develops an attachment to a person who does not actually exist at all. There are bloggers who turn out to be fictions. People form email relationships with J.T. LaRoy. The world of personal zines offers an interesting prelude to the world of personal blogs. There was a guy who wrote a zine called Subliminal Tattoos, that was popular enough to even be distributed at Barnes and Noble. It later turned out that the guy was pretending to be a teenage girl in another zine, and took up snail mail relationships with other teenage girls using this persona. I have good evidence that Dr. B is a real person in a way that LeRoy, say, was not. In that sense, we who read her blog have a real relationship with her. On the other hand, it is clear that the person we have a relationship with may be misrepresenting herself, but that does not make the relationship different than relationships we have that aren’t over the internet. It is only by leaving the notion of ‘real’ vague that we miss these obvious points.

There is an urge to dismiss relationships mediated by new technologies or social structures. I don’t think that this is justified.

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