Way back in 1981, a mystery cum sci-fi writer named Gary Wolf was finally able to find a powerful outlet for his never-ending love for cartoons. In his website Wolf describes how watching cartoons on TV became his source of inspiration: “It was during the commercials,” says Wolf. “I saw Tony the Tiger and the Trix Rabbit, and Cap’n Crunch, cartoon characters, talking to real people. And nobody seemed to think that was odd. I thought, ‘What a great idea for a novel. A place where Toons lived side by side with humans.’ I wove that into a mystery, and bingo, I had my book.”Wolf named the book “Who Censored Roger Rabbit?” and enjoyed reasonably humble existence until Hollywood maverick Robert Zemeckis used the book for his mammoth winner “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” (1988). One of the narrative-ingredients that made Zemeckis’s zany Raymond Chandler‘esque romp into a cult movie was the fact that none of the characters (Toons and human alike) had any problem with living in intimate proximity with each other. When Roger’s wife Jessica Rabbit (voiced deliciously by sultry Kathleen Turner, who is not credited for the part, btw) flirts with Eddie Valiant (a gruff Private Eye with personal grudge against Toons, played by flesh-and-blood Bob Hoskins) one can sense the gushing chemistry between the two, even though Valiant is a living being while Jessica is all ink.
But hold on — Eddie Valiant is not a living being, he every bit is as imaginary as Jessica Rabbit! Valiant lives where James Bond, Han Solo, Sam Spade, Ellen Ripley, Dorothy Gale and Roger ‘Verbal’ Kint, as well as Snow White, Shrek, and Bob the builder live.
We, too, can be a living-fiction by joining digital environments that allow us to assume any identity (or avatar) we wish to create and adopt. While literary and digerary characters may be fictitious, human have a knack of treating them as if they were real. People have been looking for real-life findings around historical sites mentioned in Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code“, tourists flock to Harry Potter sites, and Helen of Troy, Noah’s Ark and even the Garden of Eden keep many archaeologists and historians afloat professionally and financially.
Digerate culture poses additional challenges. Since online characters “exist” autonomously (they move, talk, live, die, give birth, fall in love, and communicate with other avatars, as well as their human alter-egos, without the help of any device such as an author or a battery) they cannot be simply written off as non-existent. Various cases of online rape and even murder of digital characters (I call it avatarcide) have already been contested in court, ToingToing!ed here and here. In a recent paper, communications scholar Erika Pearson from the University of Otago, New Zealand, discusses waqys in which performance can determine how identities are formed on Social Networking Sites (SNS.) (Erika Pearson (2017) All the World Wide Web’s a stage: The performance of identity in online social networks, First Monday, Volume 14, Number 3 – 2 March 2017.)
We know that people perform as part of their everyday interaction (facial expressions, tone of voice, body language are a few examples of performance as “a theatrical metaphor that can be used to articulate … shifting … interpersonal relations that occur as we engage with others as well as exchange information – both factual and social.” The question is – do people perform online as they try to establish their digital identity as well and if so – how?
Pearson argues that since “Internet-based performances are mediated and codified – they exist as pixels on a screen” and in users’ imagination. Users give life to their performances by sharing them with other users through various “tools and technologies (which are used) to project, renegotiate, and continuously revise their consensual social hallucination.” Read the last words carefully. Pearson says that sharing avatars, performing and exchanging information online is a consensual social hallucination – a massive trip in which users share their digital delusions with other users through some sort of mutual agreement. This may sound farfetched, until we remember how easily we accepted the sexual attraction between flesh-and-blood (fictitious, pixelated and screen resident) Eddie Valiant and Toon (equally fictitious, pixelated and screen resident) Jessica Rabbit who, by the way, has her own online fan club. Pearson discusses the difference between the public aspects of identity-based performances – the section of characters’ existence that is open to public scrutiny (which she identifies as “front stage) and the intimate, non-public section, available only by permission (backstage.)
Assuming one’s avatar is his/her front stage existence, while their personal details are the backstage portion of their digital lives, one would expect that the border between private and public would be maintained and protected online, as it is observed offline. Not so, says Pearson – “what feels like an intimate space can be under the watchful electronic gaze of a large unknown audience; what is being acted out as a front-stage performance could have no witnesses.” The whole concept of intimate existence is extremely rickety online; Pearson demonstrates this through the case of New York governor Eliot Spitzer who bought services of prostitutes. Journalists covering the case were able to find information about one of the prostitutes through her MySpace profile online. (Pearson, her source.)
While the lawyers for the young woman identified as Spitzer’s paid sexual partner argued that the media invaded their client’s privacy, the article claims that “she made it easy for journalists. Like so many young adults, she lived much of her life online, providing revealing personal information on social networking sites for anyone who cared to read it.”
Aren’t loss of privacy and the potential outing of one’s ‘real’ character a high price to pay in exchange for the opportunity to consensually’ hallucinate’ online with other users? According to Pearson “the risks of inadvertent disclosure through disrupted performance exchanges are outweighed by the potential to manage networks, ties and social bonds more effectively…” therefore, she concludes “[t]he benefits outweigh the costs .”
The word “benefits” is never positioned too far from the world “business”, and Pearson’s assertion that the benefits of consensual hallucinatory existence outweigh all associated risks is evident in sites like Toontown, Disney’s online massively multiplayer game “designed specifically for kids and families” who put they collective minds together. “In Toontown,”says the online intro “players, as Toons, join forces to save the world from the invading robot Cogs – humorless business robots who are attempting to turn the colorful, happy world of Toontown into a corporate metropolis. Because Cogs can’t take a joke, Toons use cartoon gags to crack them up!”
Am I the only one who feels that the robot Cogs are the best description of Disney’s own business executives?