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Okay, then. So following on from my musings on the relevance of gender identity when writing fiction, let’s get physical.

No, not like that. Gosh, you’re predictable. Here’s some soap for your pre-frontal cortex.

Really, I’d just love to know more about you, because I’m guessing and I hate to guess. The internet is faceless, bodyless, genderless, ageless, if you choose to make it so. You choose yourself a name. There are the words you choose to use (and how you spell them). There’s a tone of voice, an opinion expressed, a manner of style and expression that gives a flavour of speech to those pixillated words. There’s the pictures you like on Tumblr. There’s the fandoms you belong to. There’s the links you love. All these things are you. In many ways, they’re more you than the colour of your hair and skin, because you have chosen them yourself. Choose your online persona, ’cause you can’t choose your DNA.

But what colour are your eyes, constant reader*? Do you have a big nose? Are you sat there typing in your daisy-print frock or your corporate shirt and tie? Do you shave your chin every day or your legs?

How old are you? Do you speak with an American accent? Was that tattoo of the starship Enterprise deliberately designed to make it look as if it’s nose-diving into your cleavage or did you lose a bet?

Do any of these things matter?

Image

ETG is the one on the…left side. Of the room next door.

My answer would be yes and no. No, because it really shouldn’t ever matter what the person you’re making friends with looks like physically. Yes, if the assumptions you’ve made colour your opinions to the extent that should you ever discover how wrong you’ve been you’d feel somehow betrayed – even though the assumptions are purely and absolutely your own. The rise of internet dating in particular has made finding out the physical truth about our virtual companions paramount.

So you could spend your time talking to LoveCasey, an African-American octogenarian who has retired to Norway so that her wife can enjoy the fjord cruises, while being utterly convinced for some reason that even you couldn’t put your finger on that LoveCasey is a 25 year old Caucasian Australian man. Nothing she’s ever said has given any indication of her physical truth, and yet your brain has created a mental avatar for her with no more to go on than some words and a snapshot of interests.

In my head for years, Terry Wogan was blond. I only ever heard him on the radio, and had no reason to make that assumption – you can’t hear blond hair (except in blond jokes). I was still vaguely disturbed by the reality of his dark hair when I saw it.

The things people like, they way they present themselves in written form, even the online avatars they choose (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I don’t look even remotely like Robert Carlyle, except that I’ve also got a nose and my hair’s going a bit grey too these days) colour your assumptions about what sort of physical form they possess. And this, through no real volition of your own, colours your assumption about what sort of person they must be.

Sometimes, when the real person is revealed, like Hyde sliding out from behind the idealised Jekyll, compromising our belief in our own ability to really know a person, we can’t help that sudden, reactive shock and instinctive sensation of mistrust.

We enjoy the unreality of the internet, where the ordinary people we’re talking to are visualised as cats and rats and cartoon heroes, gods and monsters. An injection of reality can be unwelcome to us.

How important do you feel knowing the physical truth about a virtual person is? And have you ever made an assumption that shocked you with how inaccurate it turned out to be?

*My eyes are green, by the way.

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