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Imaginative play and the Internet.
thought digest, 11.15.2023
I’m always thinking about this…
I often imagine online pro-family and marriage advocates as little league baseball coaches.
Many of them have got this mini-van enthusiasm to them, and you can easily imagine them on a field, clapping their hands, rallying the troops, we’ll win this one. But the game never starts and the kids aren’t out there.
I’m not the only one who’s noticed that a significant handful of the most vocal pro-family Internet personalities are missing one vital thing: a family. But that’s the way it goes online. Many of the most vocal, most popular anti-feminists are unmarried cosmopolitans, hustling their way into a subscriber base that can pay their rent.
Not many of these people stick around—usually, these careers have a shelf-life of 2 or 3 years—but when they do, it’s like they’re suspended in amber, always preparing for a tomorrow that will only come for their peers, who then quickly vanish out of view.
But this is how it is on the Internet. It’s a dense forest of people advocating for and gatekeeping communities that are not their own. Where did the natives go, I wonder. I get accused of being too hung up on authenticity sometimes, because what is it? On some level, it is nebulous. The “authentic self” is a useful abstraction for self-help books and New Age consciousness-raising seminars. But on another, I think we all bristle at all the many contradictions in people’s self-identification and “lived experience.” An earlier draft of this featured a rather colorful list, but I’m afraid of making people angry. But even without that, we all know what I’m talking about. The 2023 woman who’s only dated men, and will only date men, policing what it means to be a lesbian is an easy, hopefully inoffensive, and adequately illustrative example. “No, I’m a lesbian, not bisexual.”
I wonder if this is part of why the social media age is so hung up on the axiom that you and you alone can tell your own story.
It’s not just for, and excuse the anachronism, SJWs (social justice warriors). This is a universal online. Pay close attention and you’ll observe people of every political affiliation and identity trapped in the ouroboros of “look at me/don’t look at me,” “you can’t speak for or about me, but I deserve my credit,” and “you can’t talk about my experience.” Do we subconsciously realize that if we’re looked at for long enough by a third party we’ll be discovered? That who you feel like you are or who you say you are doesn’t match what you are? People don’t like to be written about not because they fear a more nefarious type of exposure. It’s because they want to have the final say on who they are.
The lesson of our moment is “I’m entitled to be recognized as who I say I am.” Everybody wants a label, but nobody wants to be told what to do. A lot has been written about trends that seemingly contradict this: “types of guys,” “the ____ girl,” the now decades-and-some-change-old “revival” of astrology. Some of it is a coping mechanism: all stereotypes but invented ones are permitted. But even then, the choice is still yours: you’re not a tomato girl unless you say you are. Even astrology, which should theoretically be predictive, has exploded. There’s no one way to be a Pisces Taurus Rising Cap Moon Aquarian Venus, and the infinity of astrology memes will help you find the perfect expression of your particular combination of signs.
The fragmentation of what it means to be anything may be less due to a lack of a cohesive monoculture(which, by the way, surely must exist in some form for everyone to be complaining about the same things), and more a product of how flexibly labels are applied. I’ve always suspected that this is a fundamentally American impulse. I’ve written many times before about my own identity confusion growing up. I couldn’t understand why my peers whose families had been in the United States for over a hundred years were able to say they were Italian, but when I said it, it felt like a lie. How could they feel like they were anything other than American? They were even more abstracted from the culture than I was, and this was their whole world.
Almost every Irish, Italian, Scot-Irish, French (et al.) American I’ve ever met is about as European as Liz Warren or Cher is Native American. Are they lying? Or is it something else? I bring this up so often, at least three or four times on this blog alone, because I wonder if this was an early indicator of what culture would become. Or even that our culture has always been about this–in numerous ways–we just didn’t notice before the Internet.
Ultimately, whether it’s Liz Warren’s Native American heritage or the hypothetical lesbian from earlier, what it comes down to is a vague sense that you are something, as opposed to the experience of being that thing.
Imaginative play–which I suspect is more threatened by a lack of interactivity than screens per se–nurtures this impulse. It’s not all bad. When early critics wrote about the social laboratory of the Internet, this is what they meant. To explore that inner impulse, whatever it may be. The beauty of this new freedom was it was a parallel life or an alternative life, but there was still something static to defect from. People had the constraints of meatspace to use as a departure point.
I logged on early and had the opportunity to enjoy this part of the pre-social media digital Wild West.
I always had an affinity towards masculinity and maleness, whatever I thought that was, and channeled that feeling into creating characters. I always said I loved to write, but that was only half-true. It wasn’t really about writing or language. But I loved to create people and places, like little dolls and little dollhouses. I’d create characters to role-play with. For me, it was within the confines of a game: the characters I created were separate from the person playing them. That’s not literature—that’s theater. This is the mode we all live in now. It’s part of how we get a text-based society that’s not quite literate.
I also think it can be freeing and even productive spiritually, even if it does threaten traditional religion. I reflect fondly on the period I was Wiccan. Not because it was the Truth, but because I experienced the full force of the power of fantasy and belief. Wicca was a framework that facilitated my imagination more than it was a faith. The spirituality of the otherkin and the fictosexual, to give two examples, feels similar to me. There is something absolutely incredible about the worlds we’re able to create with our minds; the feelings we’re able to harness with our imaginations alone. It’s even more amazing when we collaborate with other people. But where else can we direct that creativity?
Identity is hollowed out. Few people are playing anymore, even if life still resembles an online roleplay. The stage is all there is!
All the cliché explanations for why this happened are probably right. The transience of modern life, the lack of community, opportunity, embodied experience. The need to find a tribe while living in a wasteland of people who are not really living–most of us online are affinity-driven, not experience-driven creatures. The sense that proximity to meaning means proximity to recognition or fame, hence the fandom.
As time goes on, the way these things are expressed gets weirder and weirder: people are trying to create something out of nothing.