I have watched with interest the unfolding story of the revelation that Amina Arraf was not a ‘real’ person. I’ve read the newspaper reports, the comments, the apology, and I am genuinely surprised by the naivety shown, not only by the public on facebook and other media outlets, but also by the media itself, who seem to delight in being shocked and appalled that they could have been deceived in such a fashion.
I am thirty eight years old. I am unusual for my age in that I am an early(ish) adopter, fairly media savvy and likely to be up to speed with the latest developments in technology. I don’t programme (I gave up after basic!) but I do know my way around the wonderweb. I am also, like Mr MacMaster, a writer.
I, too, have several blogs, not all of which use my own name, on which I experiment with different personas and styles. I write under women’s names, men’s names, anonymously… you ‘name’ it, I’ve probably had a go. In my real life I work with children, and it suits me to have the freedom to write as I choose without the risk of my words being read by one of my pupils. At no time do I place disclaimers on my sites, warning that these are works of fiction, nor do I advertise links to myself as an author… these characters are just ‘out there’, living their own lives, interacting with the world. Most of them have their own email addresses, some of them have facebook pages, all of them are me. Sometimes their words are my words, thoughts, feelings…. ‘true’, if you like, and sometimes they are not.
Several years ago, I joined an online roleplaying site called Second Life. Within this, you interact with a virtual world using an avatar of your own design and creation. Initially I spent time and effort trying to make my avatar as close to my own physical likeness as I could, rather than 8’2’’ with Barbie dimensions, which seemed to be the body shape of choice as I looked around. However, within a very short time I realised that most of the ‘Barbie’ avatars weren’t actually women in real life. They were men. Old men, young men, exploring-their-sexuality men often seemed to choose that shape as their avatar. The women were much more likely to be the machines, the furries, the guys… very quickly you realise that in Second Life, nothing is as it seems.
And that realisation sets you free.
Yes, some terrible things happen within Second Life, just as they do within real life. And I’m not going to get into the argument about ‘it’s only pixels’ and ‘you have an off switch’; no-one who has ever become involved with Second Life would ever make those statements, they know all too well how real it can become. But the terrible things that happen are a tiny minority compared to the amazing, flowing, generous creativity that runs like a river through every sim, every prim…
I have several different avatars on Second Life. They have different lives and friends, and they are very different people. I’m not actually sure I like all of them. But they do allow me to speak with different voices, to try on different personas and ideals, and I have certainly grown in confidence in the real world thanks to my experimentation in the virtual world. I am a writer. I like to create.
Does this also make me a con artist?
Tom MacMaster has changed the title of his blog from ‘A Gay Girl In Damascus’ to ‘A Hoax’. A hoax is defined as “an act intended to trick people into believing something is real when it is not” so I guess in this case, strictly speaking, hoax is the correct term for Amina, as it is for my avatars on Second Life. And yet I would argue the implication of the term ‘hoax’ suggests more-something malicious, created in order to con people into action. I don’t believe Amina started out like this, although some of her actions towards the end may well have wandered down that road. Should Mr MacMaster have placed a clear disclaimer on his blog, stating that this was a work of fiction? Absolutely not. He is a free man, this is a free country, and he is entitled to write in whichever way he chooses on his own blog.
You see, the fault doesn’t lie with Mr MacMaster, however distasteful his admissions of ‘vanity’ may seem. The fault, dear reader, lies solely and entirely with you.
In a world full of advertising, spin, legal sidestepping and deceit, we have become adept at decoding what we see before us. We understand that the estate agents ‘potential’ in reality means ‘wrecked’. We don’t bat an eyelid when 50% off turns out to be half of the chocolate bar, not half of the price. We accept that ‘96% of Loreal users’ refers to the six women in the accounting department that they could persuade to try out their latest cream, not an in- depth scientific survey. In the Daily Rags we effortlessly decode “one witness commented” to mean “our reporter invented.” So why on earth would anyone choose to believe, totally and entirely, without question, in a blog?
Look again at the definition of ‘hoax’ and ask yourself this; is a Hollywood movie little more than a hoax because it is not real? Ah, you may say, but the movie does not claim to be real, so even if it is trying to trick people into pretending it is real, it cannot be described as a hoax. Really? Then what about Eastenders? Or The War of the Worlds, or viral advertising campaigns? Are these hoaxes? Or are they creative fiction? Was Tracy Emin’s unmade bed a hoax? Was it her real bed? Did she try to convince you that it was? Did you believe her? At what point do we draw the line?
Prior to Mr MacMaster, Belle du Jour was the most celebrated ‘outing’ of a blog writer. She turned out to be every inch the intelligent, witty woman she’d portrayed, I’m sure to the great disappointment of many who had secretly hoped she was an ordinary bloke from Birmingham, or a blue rinsed grandmother tapping away in Chipping Norton. But I wondered at the time; why do we care so much? We don’t accord the same rabid curiosity to journalists, or novelists, demanding that we know every detail of their personal and private lives. Why do bloggers, writers on the internet, inspire such passion?
We expect truth from the news, and yet are not at all surprised when they are caught making up stories. We expect honesty from politicians, and yet are unmoved when their spin turns them into liars. Why on earth should we have such unrealistic expectations of a piece of writing on a website; high enough to move campaigners to action; high enough to induce bitter feelings of betrayal in readers of this fiction?
Because we believe them. In spite of all our hard- earned worldly- wise weariness, there is something about blog writing we keep blindly accepting as truth. It has all the illicit thrill of reading someone’s diary. And just as Tom Riddle knew in The Chamber of Secrets, when we find a diary that tells us exactly what we want to hear, we take it at face value. We believe every word, because the writer is writing our thoughts, our feelings; how could it possibly be anything other than true? How could a man understand what it is like to be a teenage lesbian? A petty thief see into the mind of Hitler, a monster? It in some ways cheapens our own thoughts and feelings to imagine that they could be replicated in such an easy and deceitful way. We don’t like to feel we’re that shallow or easy to read. And so, in spite of no such claims one way or another by the author, Amina was taken at face value. And like every jilted Second Life lover, every death row correspondent, people felt betrayed that she wasn’t what they’d imagined her to be.
Tom MacMaster may indeed be guilty of straying too far into his created world. It’s a mistake almost everyone involved in virtual characterisations makes at one time or other. I don’t entirely believe his protestations that his relationship with ‘Paula Brooks’, to whom he apologises on his blog (and who also ironically turned out to be a middle aged man- this happens all the time on Second Life!) was as platonic as he claims, speaking from personal experience, and I am certain that involvement with other people on any level carries with it huge risk on both sides. When the virtual world seeps into relationships within the real world, the results can be devastating. But aside from this, his crime is to be a good writer, to have created a character so convincing, so capturing the zeitgeist, that when he had her kidnapped in order to be able to go on holiday thousands of people started to look for her.
Were you one of the people? Do you feel betrayed?
He didn’t set out to con you. It may surprise you to know, you’re just not that important to him.
But let me ask you this; when you thought Amina was real, what was it that brought you back to her, kept you reading? Her courage? Candour? Humour? The insight into a volatile and dangerous Middle Eastern culture? Those things are still real, they are still as inspiring. She may herself not exist in a physical sense, but her spirit and words are as real as it was before she was unmasked. She is as real as the news, as the politics, as the world presented to you every day via your TV, internet, and newspapers. And as unreal. As unreal as the identity you in turn present to the world on your facebook page. As unreal as the ‘you’ your colleagues know. As unreal as any of us when we’re interacting with a complicated world.
People have accused Mr MacMaster of damaging their causes. To them I would say this. If it took Amina to motivate you to action, if you needed a pretty and articulate poster girl to rally you to arms, then shame on you. Every day people who are in Amina’s situation for real struggle to be heard, and you, we, everyone should be working for that freedom, for the rights of real human beings to live in peace. Your computer desk involvement does not absolve you of your responsibilities towards your fellow man. So, stop whinging about your gullibility being laid bare, and wise up. Go outside into the real world, and find some real people to campaign for. Because I can assure you, if you can be bothered to look, they are there.
And for the millionth time, stop believing everything you read.