The Dream Must Be Continuous

The Dream Must Be Continuous
10/10/2013

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Last week, I gave a talk at Lauren McCarthy and Kyle McDonald’s class on “social hacking” at ITP “Appropriating Interaction Technologies”. They are thinking about crowd behavior and relationships with technology unlike anyone else, and it comes across in their excellent work. Lauren has a bunch of exciting projects come up (you probably heard about her Social Turkers project earlier this year.) And I find myself constantly talking about Kyle’s Social Rouletteexperiment — especially the media response to it, among his other projects.David Leonard spoke before me, and Ilona Gaynor showed up, so the evening ended up being kind of a meet-up of people interested in fact/fiction blending in media. A number of examples came from my website. Here are some more notes and images from my talk, (which was more of a conversation than a presentation format):

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70 Men Arrive at a Frozen Yogurt Shop to Meet a Girl From Tinder Who Doesn’t Exist

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About this time last year, I was in London attending The Dreamy Awards at The Serpentine Gallery, an interactive performance by the artist Ed Fornieles. Kind of a send-up of the Lovie Awards, a glitzy mix of fashion and “digital” in the agency world, every ticketholder was assigned a new identity. There were training sessions scheduled in advance of the event to get people into character (my character was the founder of an augmented reality contact lenses start-up.) What a strange evening. I spent most of the time with someone I met just an hour ago pretending we were coworkers —but it was also the least shy I’d ever been at a party. There was no real risk of embarrassment because everyone was expected to play an over-the-top character. It was particularly interesting toward the end when people stripped away some fictions, and broke in and out of character. Just before I left, I was chatting with someone who was playing an emerging actress from Los Angeles. I was startled to hear her break out in a Scottish accent to complain about her shoes —convinced up until that moment that I had met another American.

What I liked about the event was it brought to life something people do on the internet all the time — that is, trying on a new identities, trolling, pranking, make believe. You could say the same about LARP or other role-playing games, but the setup was mundane rather than fantastic, and felt more relatable to how online interactions play out. People who impersonate others online likely assume the character of the most attractive possible person for the context. If you are part of message board for fly fishing, you wouldn’t say you are Scarlett Johansson, but just some ordinary fly fisher that maybe has an avatar image of a model taken from an obscure catalog altered in a way to deceive image search. These little fiction are optional accessories in the complicated process of defining an identity online.

The cartoon “On the internet nobody knows you’re a dog” ran in the New Yorker twenty years ago. It still resonates. It is practically the internet’s golden rule. I think also of that Oscar Wilde quote that Julian Assange often relays, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”

Most of us are not shielding our identity online to be horrible to one another. Some disguise or concealment gives us freedom to speak openly. That is certainly how it was for me when I signed up for the internet for the first time nearly twenty years ago. I was in high school. Incorporating mystery and invention was all in earnest. I didn’t know who I was, every new AOL screen name was another chance to find my path. That is why I am quick to defend the people who make up fake dream girls on OKCupid or elsewhere. What is wrong with wanting to know what it’s like to be a girl on the internet? This is a natural curiosity. There’s so much room to create and think around the edges when we understand the internet encourages this playfulness and deceit.

That’s not the only reason we do this. I think it comes from the impulse to tell stories. Most of us will never have the resources to make a film — you need investors, you need a team of hundreds from editors to makeup artists to gaffers (and they all need to be in your corner!) Even writing a novel is beyond the possibility for the most of us. It could take years to write, then years of revisions and new drafts, which is more than most of us can devote to what begins (and likely stays) an unpaying hobby. Health, work, and family life tend to get in the way. But the desire to create remains. And we have something to engage these desires in the internet.

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Because we write so much — engaging with text all day long — people are generally very good at expressing themselves with words. This skill might come out in any blank text box — even our passwords might take some creativity. So many times, I’ll be looking for something ordinary like a bike on Craigslist and come across a clever, evocatively written ad to sell something. And I love it when people purposefully sneak in their writing in spaces they wouldn’t otherwise. For example, last summer, someone wrote a short story in Craigslist Missed Connections. It wasn’t in Paris Review or Conjunctions, but a place where people are looking for love. Maybe the writer will never make it as a novelist, but he found his audience, he reached out. Sometimes it is hard to tell whether someone believes what he is saying or not. I thought for sure thishaunted mirror on ebay was a joke, but later discovered — tracing his user name back to several message boards — the seller actually believes this mirror, which he got from a dumpster, is haunted and therefore worth 100 quid (but who knows, he might be playing a long game with blog posts continuing this fictional story of his haunting.)

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Right now we are all trying to make sense of this thing we use everyday to communicate. We are testing boundaries, and discovering how online and offline habits don’t always directly translate. We are making mistakes, which is a good thing for the course of history, but also frustrating in the moment when hurt feelings arise and all the emotions are undefined. I will happily stand up for any guy that wants to create a fake girl on Tinder to figure out what it must be feel like to live as the other gender —to empathize. But then, that so easily becomes a prank like what happened at a frozen yoghurt shop in Salt Lake City, when 70 men showed up hoping to meet up with a girl who was actually invented by a group of male students. And it is entirely another thing to take a story as far as Gay Girl in Damascus.

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I had the title for the talk in my head before I actually wrote these notes down. It is something I scribbled in an old notebook years ago, back when I was working on a novel that due a number of circumstances I never completed, but remains in my head — a quote from Haruki Murakami about how to persist to finish writing a novel. He said “the dream must be continuous.” Or at least, I thought he did and I thought that’s what I wrote down. I googled it just the other day and it turned out not to be worded quite that way — if he said anything like that at all. Just another example of decaying memory turned into a new idea. If you are reading and looking at a lot of different things, memory mixes up and fails and gives you something unique. Well, now those are my words and I want to put them somewhere.

Images and words online are mutable. I love this Katamari Damacy bookmarkletfor when I’m upset about something in the news. And there is plenty more you do there. You can edit a page yourself if you really want to see something:

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