Everyone is weird on the Internet.
This is one of the Internet’s immutable laws.
Some people are weird in person and weird on the Internet.
Some people are normal in person and weird on the Internet.
Some people appear to be normal in person and normal on the Internet, and then years later it emerges that they are the anonymous mastermind behind an elaborate online saga that is essentially “50 Shades of Grey” with pandas.
Everyone is weird on the Internet.
Bad enough to be judged by the things you actually did in the course of your life. But to be judged by your pseudonymous online comments? Unthinkable horror!
There is no one whose browser history, if broadcast, would not fill the world at large with shock and horror. And the things you post under a pseudonym — even when they are generally polite — well, if you wanted to post them under your real name, you would have.
Now, Colleen Lachowicz, a Democratic candidate for the Maine Senate, is running up against a new line of attack: attack for the things you said pseudonymously, online.
It used to be that, on runs for office, you were held accountable only for the things you did in actual life. Actual life, we understand, now extends into Facebook and Twitter and all the other tentacles of the Real World Online, where you answer to your actual name and your comments all go on the record.
But the pseudonymous Internet still exists, parallel and thriving, in the comments sections of Web sites, in message boards, in games. It has its pitfalls, as anyone who has tried to make a Craigslist connection can tell you. But now, at least in Maine, the Republican Party is trying to hold Lachowicz to account for what she said on the Internet under her World of Warcraft playing-Daily Kos commenter persona, collating all her comments on a site called ColleensWorld.com. Never mind that it is more normal to play World of Warcraft than it is to be a really enthusiastic badminton fan. Old standards die hard.
One of the trade-offs of political and public life in the Internet era was that we were willing to curb our Identified Online activity. Don’t post anything on Facebook that you wouldn’t say out loud. It was a sacrifice we made with the understanding that you would leave the orcs alone.
So this attack is a very bad idea.
Lachowicz, by day, is a candidate for office. By night, she’s a level-85 rogue orc in World of Warcraft who enjoys stabbing and poisoning. You can’t expect a level-85 rogue orc to act like a state senator from Maine. Stabbing and poisoning is a no-no, at the statehouse. Language that becomes one is deeply unsuited to the other. The brutal irony of this is that one persona takes a good deal more care and passion to craft, and I don’t think it’s the candidate.
But, the party argued, it’s not the fact that she plays games that they wish to critique, so much as it is the comments she posted about wanting to do violent and rude things to Grover Norquist and John McCain.
Even this is a slippery slope. Is everyone who has ever posted a rude comment online pseudonymously to be banished from public office? I’ve been on the receiving end of those, and even I think that’s unreasonable. Save the ire for people who post this kind of thing under their real names. Leave the identities separate.
The Internet is a shrine to our collective weirdness, but in many areas this kind of community flourishes only with anonymity. You learn what people love, you get to know them because you share that love and then a few years later you assemble in a well-lit public convention space and realize that Mother Orc lives down the block.
Different communities have different rules, different standards, different levels of discourse. As a general rule, the more obscure and bizarre the obsession, the kinder and better-spelled the comments. Mainstream newspapers attract crawling capitalized maggots below the fold. But visit a forum dedicated to converting literary figures to werewolves, say, and everyone offers to correct your grammar for free, very politely.
“Maine needs a state senator that lives in the real world,” notes the site by the Maine Republican Party that collates all Lachowicz’s comments, “not in Colleen’s fantasy world.”
The real world is all very well. I spend most of my time there.
But part of the Internet’s charm is its abundance of communities of strangers. You could be yourself online, but a good number of us started off as someone else. The whimsical screen name on AIM. The message board ID. The oddly specific e-mail address that referenced your favorite animal. The identity known only to a few real-world friends, the sturdy vessel in which you braved the vasty deeps of cyberspace.
Draw the line from online persona to candidate, and you’re opening a terrifying box. Is this fair game?
We can’t just ditch the pseudonymous principle. The Federalist Papers were pseudonymous. This Publius guy was only a level-70 paladin, and yet he managed to make it into public life without a problem. Thomas Jefferson had a secret Livejournal that he updated religiously. I hear William Henry Harrison was very active in the Brony community. ]
If you can use the Internet, you have left something embarrassing on it that you would prefer the public at large not get to pore over. If this is open to attack, we are going to have some very empty seats in years to come. This embarrassment is built into the online experience.
The only thing more embarrassing than a bizarre double life on the Internet is not being able to use it at all.