Why it's 'Hello' to Mum and 'Wossup?' to mates



A novel published tomorrow explores, according to its publisher, "the changing nature of personal identity in the age of social media". A Virtual Love by Andrew Blackman is a thoroughly modern novel, much of which takes place online. Its lead character, Jeff, is confident with the different images that he projects on social media and dating websites, and when the beautiful Marie mistakes him online for someone else, he plays along and they fall in love. "We create different versions of ourselves on different sites," says the author, "and reshape or delete them at will." The novel goes as far as to question whether anyone has a "real" identity any more.

Forgive me, but I don't think that this is anything new. Falling in love while pretending to be someone else is probably best avoided, but it is not an internet-enabled phenomenon. Perhaps the most famous example is Cyrano de Bergerac (1897).

More importantly, we have always shown different facets of ourselves in different circumstances. Nobody is the same person on a first date as they are with their boss. We don't behave around our parents in the same way that we carry on with our more rackety friends. It doesn't mean that we're pretending; just that we are able to adapt to social situations. If you find someone whom you don't mind seeing all the different yous, you should probably try to marry them.

It is true that people can behave differently in their offline and online lives. Take the Twitter troll James O'Brien, who was courageous enough in virtual reality to taunt the boxer Curtis Woodhouse for eight months. Offline, he felt a lot less bold and instantly apologised when Woodhouse turned up in his street to ask him to "say that to my face". Or take George Osborne, who goes online to tweet pictures of cute cats and fat squirrels, but in the real world cuts benefits to poor people. He's probably really kind to his mother, too.

These social disconnects are not caused by the existence of new internet forums, however, but rather by a lack of empathy. And that's just as possible in the "real" world. Earlier this month, the American senator Rob Portman changed his views in favour of gay rights and same-sex marriage after learning that his son is gay. It's not a huge stretch of the imagination, you might think, to ask oneself: "Would I feel icky about gay people if my son was gay?" "Would I honk my horn and leer at this woman jogger if she were my sister?" "Would I pick on this stranger if he were built like a tank and driving up my street?" But apparently some people need very immediate physical evidence to be able to grasp that other people's feelings are real.

Reading novels makes us better people because it helps us to empathise with folk who are not like us, and for this reason I applaud Mr Blackman's book. But we don't have to go online for our different personas to turn nasty. We just have to forget that other people are people too.


React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, Graduate, SQL, VBA)

£45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, ...

Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Perl, Bash, SQL)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Per...

C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB6, WinForms)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB...

C# Developer (Genetic Algorithms, .NET 4.5, TDD, SQL, AI)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Jihadist militants leading away captured Iraqi soldiers in Tikrit, Iraq, in June  

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Robert Fisk
India's philosopher, environmental activist, author and eco feminist Vandana Shiva arrives to give a press conference focused on genetically modified seeds on October 10, 2012  

Meet Vandana Shiva: The deserving heir to Mahatma Ghandi's legacy

Peter Popham
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home