From almost the beginning of literature in ancient times, writers have toyed with the idea of alternate visions of reality: dream worlds, the reality after death, fantasy worlds, the world when under the influence of foreign substances, life at the royal court, the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Now, with the rise of the Internet and social media, most people have gained the ability to do what writers have always done—create their own alternative world over which they have almost total control. The instances of people pretending to be someone else on social media are widespread—the New York City police officer who assumed another online identity in which he made racist remarks is the latest example of a number of online hoaxes perpetrated by fake actors for the usual reasons—money, sex, money, ego, money, shame or shaming, politics, money, racism, hate…did I mention money?
If I remember correctly, we as a society first became aware of the widespread phenomenon of non-scammers pretending to be someone else online when the virtual reality websites such as Second Life and AvatarLife attracted publicity in the aughts. People would create their own life built around their “avatars,” which in this context means an online alternative being. They would assume a different name, profession and lifestyle in their online universe. They would interact with other avatars, sometimes form relationships, and even marry other avatars. Of course, you never really knew whether the handsome and vigorous investment banker you just married on line was really a middle-aged widow or an uneducated grocery stocker with face tattoos.
When I first read about these virtual reality sites, I started to add up the different selves someone could have online—accounts with different names on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, and WeChat, several different email addresses, several different handles for various online games, avatars for several virtual reality sites. From this contemplation of an ego fragmenting into many different selves emerged a comic poem called “The Self-Made Man,” which appeared in The Great American Wise Ass Poetry Anthology that Lamar University Literary Press published a few years ago. Later I returned to the character I had created in the poem, gave him a past and context for his seeking an alternative life, and slipped the fleshed-out version into the last chapter of my new novel, The Brothers Silver.
A SELF-MADE MAN
What I coulda been, what I shoulda done,
he speculates in peculated hyperspace
while waiting for his logged-on self to form.
Now I get everything I want and right away in cyberspace,
My avatars jet skis at Tahoe,
climb up walls at Jackson Hole,
He’s posing with his posse,
chilling with the Chili Peppers,
onstage with Alan Jackson fondling chorines,
buying icon tambourines as souvenirs of best-of-times.
I am that I am, he exclaims in pixilated self-perfection,
while switching screens to check his email.
Adding up his passwords, avatars and handles,
he has more names than Arjuna,
more faces than a kabalistic god,
multiple windows of worlds,
and the permanence of love, his online wife,
more cuddly than that bitch who’s bugging me
to fix the dripping bathroom sink.
Published in The Great American Wise Ass Poetry
Anthology (Lamar University Literary Press, 2016)