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.
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