Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Hoax: Sex, power or good will?

After I was used as an "expert" in Politiken yesterday (I am used to being presented by title and connection, not just this vague "expert"), where the headline proudly claims that "many men are lesbians online" (yes, I cringed) I haven't been able to stop thinking about this.

First, by way of Nancy Baym, a really good write-up of the story by Kira Cochrane in the Guardian. Cochrane sees the hoaxes as a power play, where straight men take the positions of what they see as their challengers, the gay women. Gay women are both extremely tantalising and extremely challenging to straight males, as they are both competition and an ultimate conquest. From the article:
Both cases, says the feminist writer Beatrix Campbell, can be seen as a portrait of male dominance – men needing to infiltrate discussions where they wouldn't otherwise have an obvious, and certainly not an authoritative, place

Being a relatively straight woman with a butch haircut, I have experienced the power play of straight men wanting to prove the supriority of a straight life-style first hand. However, I don't think the hoaxes are only about male superiority. If so, how do we explain the cancer-hoaxes?

In two well known cancer hoaxes the persons behind them were women. I have already mentioned the well-known case of Kaycee Nicole Swenson, but another interesting case is that of Jonathan Jay White, or Melissa Ann Rice. While this and most of the other cancer hoaxes included fraud by accepting donations, it's interesting because it was revealed through a personal connection, just like Kaycee Nicole. The outcome was considerably more tragic, as the woman behind the story was found dead shortly after it was revealed.

The creator of Kaycee Nicole wanted to raise the general public's consciousness of cancer. Tom MacMaster wanted to raise the general public's consciousness of the lesbian struggle. Instead both added to the (necessary?) online paranoia. What I suspect caught wasn't their good will, but the power rush of having a lot of attention, the joy of being that other who was loved and admired, and to be an even better other than the real thing. It's a power rush not so much connected to gender as to the potential for attention. Many of the bloggers who burn out blogging describe it as a lifestyle. From one burnt-out blogger, who posted her last post in 2008:
Agathe vurderer ofte å slutte med bloggingen, men det er vanskelig å gi slipp. Tenk hvis hun savner det. Hun kan tenke «ok, nå er jeg ferdig», men fortsetter alltid.
(Agathe considers quitting the blogging, but it's hard to let go. What if she misses it? She can think "ok, now I am done", but she always continues.)

Agathe's description of her experience as a popular blogger (link in Norwegian) heavily editing her life carries a reminder of the reason why so many other couldn't stop their blogging. In her case the life she blogs isn't a hoax, as she lives it. But perhaps is it not quite what she thought after all, perhaps her heavy editing of herself caused her to lose contact with her reality? When her husband leaves, everything collapses, and she becomes a very different person - a person who is not blogging. Perhaps was she never the style-ikon she lived her life as? Perhaps was she - a hoax?

Still, it all leads back to checking sources - to the extent it's possible. However, people tend to be truthful. In Personal Connections in the Digital Age, Nancy Baym points out that most people err on the side of truthfullness, and represent themselves honestly rather than lie (p. 121). Agathe was truthful, as far as she was able to, and sometimes being truthful can be too much. When opening up to the world wide web, there needs to be some kind of filter.

Perhaps not the filter of a total change of gender, nationality, sexual preference and political agenda though.

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