Avatars, Incivilities: A Response to Heather Harlow’s “Identity and Civility on the Internet”
By Glen Southergill
“[singing] The rock and pool, is nice and cool, so juicy sweet. Our only wish, [he whacks the fish on the rock].” –Gollum (The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers)
“What, then, is a Writer?” –Gregory L. Ulmer (113)
In her book chapter remix project, Heather Harlow introduces us to “Maggie.” “Maggie” is in many respects a caricature of the child next door who rides her bike to and from school. She waives to neighbors, maybe stopping along the way to say hello. And with her cartoon smile she greets us warmly as viewers. Yet “Maggie’s” online conduct is far from civil. She engages in all forms of cyber-ne’er-do-welling. “Maggie’s” persona operates in sharp contrast to Douglas Rushkoff’s perspective, which serves as the focus of Harlow’s remix. Harlow’s treatment of Rushkoff juxtaposes accountability and anonymity, in which the maxim “you own your own words” means less “ownership” in the property than the responsibility sense. “Maggie” hides behind a liberating anonymity in order to behave harmfully. Protected from the damage her authorial character would face for breaching the guidelines of more civilized discourse, the “Maggies” out there dodge recognizable identities to acquire protective shells from the music they might otherwise (and justly) face.
For shame, Maggie. For shame.
The civility/identity matrix, in online worlds, marks the return of an old rhetorical problem found beyond the appropriateness of decorum. In much the same way a note can be passed without clear attribution (or perhaps left on walls in paint for others to see) thus permitting the author to evade an incrimination of “self” resulting from questionable conduct, a non-identity allows online posters latitude to flame, troll, dox, cyberbully, and the like. Rushkoff, remixed, calls the viewer to explore ethics
concurrently with digital writing. The possibility of composing a “self” online carries within it the possibility of producing an oddly disconnected and inhumane writer. Gregory Ulmer’s thinking in which avatars become sites of invention speaks largely to this point. Notes Ulmer, “avatar is not a mimetic of one’s ego, but a probe beyond one’s ownness, as a relationship with community, with the Other” (117). Without the restraint of identity or reputation in a more literate sense, the “civilities” of decorum morph. Harlow’s remix suggests to viewers a danger: with the change in self comes the potentiality for new selfishness. Then and not without irony a comic presented cinematically becomes a unique and fitting genre to revisit Rushkoff’s argument.
Harlow’s adaption of Rushkoff’s ideas arrives at an opportune time. #Gamergate, #NotMyAmerica, and the online publics to come will continue to beg challenging questions about cyber-violences and online identity. And therein we also find a paradox: authors writing online may well do so in ways that they would not in non-electronic domains. Creativity and novel approaches to writing share real estate with base insensitivity or worse. The same channels that enable a free flowing of ideas into the publics also nurture the unscrupulous expressions encapsulated perfectly by the reported words of a mother who learned that her son threatened to rape Alanah Pearce: “omg little shit.”
Indeed, except for perhaps the “little” part.
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Dir. Peter Jackson (adapted from J.R.R.
Tolkien). Perf. Andy Serkis. New Line, 2002. Film.
Ulmer, Gregory L. Avatar Emergency. Anderson, SC: Parlor P., 2012. Print.