City & Politics, Columns, Essay, Technology

Unmasking the Internet

“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain…” ~The Wizard of Oz

The outing of notorious Reddit commenter Violentacrez on the weekend swiftly converged two spheres that had been long been enjoyed as separate. It’s a portent for a new era where there can be no more distinction between online personas and their real life creators. Michael Brutsch (AKA Violentacrez) pleaded with the reporter; half-assed groveling to please preserve his ‘privacy’ and save his hide.

As a reddit moderator of subreddits “jailbait” and “creepshots”, he seemed to care less about the ‘privacy’ of unsuspecting women whose photos he posted. He upheld them to sexual scrutiny and public pillory by internet randoms. He maintained that what he was doing was not illegal – the women photographed in creepshots were on the streets and sidewalks out in public  – but he was well aware that that didn’t make it right.

If he truly thought it was, he would have used his real name.

The online world and real life are colliding. What many perceive as their own private lair (to vent their grievances and consort with friends) is being seen by countless others. And that may not be the image they want people to see.

As a fourteen-year old living on a farm in rural Northern Ontario, my first love was dial-up Internet. In 1994, the WWW was a series of shoddily designed 2.0 pages that loaded at a glacial pace, but I was transfixed. I would log onto the archaic IRC (Internet Relay Chat), delighting in the company of mysterious strangers, adopting their utilitarian language (A/S/L?) and flirting with dudes who led me to believe they were hot Californian surfers. This was remarkably exciting for a relatively sheltered Brethren-protestant girl who wasn’t even allowed to go to school dances. Suddenly I was meeting people who had no preconceptions about me and I could craft a new identity. On the web I had a glorious blank slate: it liberated me, it seemed.

I began chatting with a guy in the southern United States. Eager to impress, I affected a sense of worldliness that I did not possess. Eventually he started phoning me, but I noticed that he sounded older than he purported to be. It quickly became evident that half-truths and embellishments were inevitable. Lies were across the board, as I would find later when meeting some of these people in real life. In a world where you can project this idealized, cultivated image of yourself, you can guarantee that everyone else is doing the exact same thing. When he claimed to have stolen a car and wanted to drive to Canada to “visit me”, I got gun shy and cut off contact. When the virtual was capable of becoming real, it scared me.

People have said that the internet will rob us of human contact. Others insist it’s just another communication tool, like a telephone. It kick-started globalization and revolutionized business. It has been a great equalizer for lesser known artists and musicians, who now have access to worldwide markets that formerly only hyped-up corporate-backed stars enjoyed. CD sales plummeted, with albums being chopped up and shared by gleeful freeloaders.

My online identity started to gradually fuse with my real life one, mostly because I was increasingly influenced by the patchwork of sites that were at my fingertips. I was able to hear bands like Bikini Kill and Sleater Kinney, that would be in no way be accessible to me otherwise. It prompted my involvement in a riot grrl subculture that gave me confidence and spurned me to start a punk band. It gave me the cultural currency to win over friends from outside of my insular circle.

Peer pressure seemed a laughable affair because I had long been fleshing out my ‘public identity’ in the privacy of my own house. It was a second upbringing. With the advent of high school, the IRC began to lose its patina. I sought connections with people I could see, smell and feel. I thought of those hot Californian surfers actually being pasty middle-aged men in stained jogging pants and it nauseated me. The false ideals were supplanted with real relationships, in all of their awkwardness.

By the time I was finished University, the entire world, it seemed, was online. Friendster then Myspace then Facebook exploded with everyone and their grandmother playing Farmville or posting photos of their dinner or their offspring or bathroom photos of themselves, cheeks sucked in and lips pushed out like duckbills.

Facebook often fosters an environment – not of thoughtful consideration – but of egoistic posturing. Maybe this is the way people really are, or maybe the medium fuels it. Either way, it’s not pretty. Like an endless first week of school, it requires constant calibration and image control. ‘Facebooking’ became a verb and provided the interface for endless self-congratulation, for picking fights, and for feeling morally superior.

Meanwhile, the troll realm of the anonymous commenter continued to flourish. Under youtube videos and news articles, on blogs and on bulletin boards – everyone could suddenly be a critic. They were entitled to not only have an opinion but to shit on everyone who disagreed with them. You could pass scathing judgment on people who put themselves on the pyre of public display, without having that same judgment passed onto you.

Many of these trolls have a glut of free time, and are fuelled by rage and a sense of impotence in real life. Their words can have real power online, triggering the same physiological stress responses that you’d experience in a real life argument. Malicious comments sting even in ASCII, a fact that cyberstalking victim Amanda Todd knew too well. Doing something behind the lonely blue glow of a computer screen seems like a private act, but the internet is in the most public forum of all. The internet creates a false sense of invisibility and invincibility.

With a few keystrokes, you can navigate to the fringes of civilized society – homophobic screeds, murders and dismemberment, child pornography, racist tirades, and all manner of abuse: all packaged and neatly linked for the curious onlookers and faceless predators alike.

Vitriolic words are slung around with no consideration for implications. If your virtual identity is just a slippery avatar that isn’t the ‘real you’, then you can’t possibly be held accountable for what that avatar does. Until now.

The internet can be an incredible force for social change, for personal growth, for uniting disparate people. But it can also alienate. The white noise hum of the net with its spluttering memes, tired pornography, and content-hungry clicking is just distracting enough to make us forget that we are dealing with real people. The amateur girls with  semen cascading over their unconvincing smiles – are human. The razor-tongued trolls, spewing bilge about niggers and spics and faggots – are human. The little suicidal girl who couldn’t escape the mocking online taunts was a human being. And so are you.

The big reveal of Violentacrez on the weekend is a sobering reminder that a little sleuthing can force your virtual identity and real life identity into one. This convergence should give us all pause. If you wouldn’t say it in real life, with conviction, you shouldn’t say it at all. I welcome the unmasking of this man who thought that privacy was a privilege that only he should enjoy. It may raise us all to a higher standard. Because if that’s not really my life online, then maybe I should get a real life.


Tiffy Thompson is a writer and illustrator for the Spectator Tribune.  Follow her on Twitter at @tiffyjthompson.

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