Terence Blacker: How did the online me end up so much nicer than the real me?

Notebook

Terence Blacker
Friday 02 March 2012 01:00
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It is one of those moments when news from the virtual world has kicked real life off the front pages. Google has taken upon itself the right to pass on information of everyone's online life; meanwhile, the mini-chat site Twitter is six years old, and the Twitter 100, a chart of the most influential mini-chatters, has been published.

There was a time when these developments in cyberspace would not have interested me in the slightest. When Stephen Fry photographed himself in a lift and broadcast it to his "followers" – a seminal moment in the history of Twitter – I was equally bewildered by the self-stalking celebrity invading his own privacy and by those who were interested in it.

Later, I was myself sucked into cyberspace and, although I have not yet been reduced to taking pictures of myself and sending them to strangers, I have to confess that it has changed my life. I mini-chat, I blog, I interact on a daily basis with people I have never met. It's great.

Internet social networks are useful for the freelance, allowing mild acts of self-promotion. Thanks to the little gang of witty, intelligent people whose messages I read, I discover articles, news stories and clips which I would otherwise have missed. On the other hand, I resist the urge to overshare with the other, only slightly larger gang which listens to me; today, on a walk, I heard the wonderful watery song of lapwings in flight. I considered briefly telling my Twitter friends about this before concluding that not that many people would be as interested in the lapwings in East Anglia as I am.

This alternative, virtual version of myself has changed me. I am nicer behind the screen than I am in real life – more tolerant, less gabby, wittier, kinder. If someone is rude to me, I try to respond in a dignified tone, or simply rise above the insult. These things rarely happen in the real, physical world.

Like many millions of people, I am beginning to discover that social life conducted through a computer with two tapping fingers is more controllable than the hit-or-miss business of a human contact. Not only can I avoid bores, but I am less boring myself. As a result, I go out less than I used to, any need for company being satisfied by a few minutes of cheerful yet economical chat online.

There are disadvantages in this new arrangement. Those who use Twitter or text become more clipped in all their communications, forgetting that in the outside world messages can exceed 140 characters. There is always the worry that someone who knows me online will be disappointed by my more garrulous, less interesting non-digital self.

It is a small price to pay for the joy of having my own little forum beyond the screen where I can be myself (even if I am not).

Anti-everything is the spirit we need

Reading between the lines of obituaries for the American publisher Barney Rosset, one might well conclude that he was not an easy man. At school, he co-edited a newspaper called Anti-Everything. He married five times. His own authors, with the exception of Samuel Beckett, eventually distanced themselves from him. He was once profiled by Life magazine under the headline, "The Old Smut Peddler".

Perhaps that is what gave his Grove Press list its quality. Many of the books he published in the face of legal and social pressure – Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, William Burroughs's Naked Lunch, Hubert Selby Jnr's Last Exit to Brooklyn, and others – reflected a radical, randy, dangerous alternative world. Without those books, the literary life of the past half-century would have been considerably impoverished.

In our nervous, conservative world, we need more of that life-enhancing, anti-everything spirit.

terblacker@aol.com; Twitter.com/TerenceBlacker

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