Tonight, I discovered a longtime online friend was a fraud who falsified photos, details about his identity, and plagiarised scripts in order to ingratiate himself into a writing community I was a part of. The biggest question, after the confusion and hurt settled, was “Why?”.
I’m no stranger to working online under a pseudonym; I’ve been writing under one online for eight years, between my fanfiction phase and my transition to scripts. When I was thirteen, I’d fudge my age, bumping it up to 15 or 16 to seem more adult, though I doubt anyone was fooled. I remember feeling free, like a completely different person on the ‘net. More respected. Smarter. More eloquent. And, funny enough, I didn’t feel like such a little kid.
But though I’ve kept the pseudonym, I’ve dropped the other affectations. I no longer fake my age, or even keep up the pretense that my pseudonym is anything but. I try to sound like myself, rather than some mythical cooler version that people will respect. As I’ve grown up, I’ve grown into more self-confidence. Now, I don’t need to lie. So, maybe I understand elements of the deception at play here; if you want to be someone who is a strong, respected writer, ‘write’ things that are better than you can actually write. If you want to seem like a prolific TV reviewer, ‘post’ plenty of smart reviews from around the Internet. If you want people to see you as mature and responsible, lie about a wife and a child you don’t have. Maybe back in the early 2000s, when I did this stuff, it was more understandable.
But in the past five years, ideas around what an online personality, and an online friendship, have changed. What was once acceptable is no longer, because online friendships and relationships have gained actual legitimacy. Once upon a time, lies were rampant among such relationships, and you expected nothing better; internet anonymity and relative newness meant engaging emotionally with someone online was a pretty dumb idea. Now, though perhaps those same liars are still at it, there’s a sense of trust on the ‘net that people expect you to abide by in a personal friendship. Plagiarism has never been alright, but identity on the web has been a forming area of discussion over the years, and public opinion has changed: what was once expected is now betrayal. And the idea of giving fake pictures of yourself, and of someone else’s child claimed as your own, is particularly a painful betrayal of someone who built a friendship with you over the course of two years. It’s particularly odd when the deception has little to do with the topic you bonded over; someone giving out a fake picture is more understandable on a dating website (as their goal is to convince you to be attracted to them) than it is on a writing website, though in both cases it’s an insulting lie.
Online friendship is something different, now. It’s like meeting a classmate or a co-worker; someone who shares an area of interest with you, whom you otherwise don’t really know. Typically, your friendship doesn’t rely on the details of each others’ lives; you get along, and continue your friendship on the assumption neither has told you a grevious lie, and hopefully your continued relationship with them bears that out. We don’t assume, when a co-worker mentions their daughter or shows us a photo from their wallet, that they might be lying. And its become much the same with online friends, at least those with a degree of eloquence and who connect with us on a friend level.
Where is the line between psedonym and psycho? Between a liar and a fact-fudger? Where do we forgive and where do we blame?