Imagine this next sentence (and the many sentences after it) colored with only the most straightforward neutrality and diplomacy, unattached to any kind of holier-than-thou ignorance or old-man-yelling-at-clouds subtext: I have never posted on a message board or forum and I could count on my fingers and toes how many times I’ve commented on an article.
Pre-2010, social media and the internet in general was almost exclusively a tool to share things about me personally, an actor in Cincinnati working full-time at a Shakespeare company, or on tour performing Twelfth Night, or wearing an oversized cavalier hat in a production of Measure for Measure. Sharing meant sharing something I was doing, or feeling, or seeing. There were rarely pithy observations or jokes obfuscated in a coded language. Just a 1:1 direct transfer from the things I said in real life to a box that said, “What’s on your mind?”
I started really using Twitter in 2010 when I quit acting and got a job that had me on a computer 9-5. I put up a picture of myself for my avatar. It was a nice, content smile selfie (no teeth) I took while I was sitting on my porch. “Here’s what the first warm day after winter looks like,” I wrote when I had posted it on Facebook some months earlier. I wasn’t worried about being clever or guarded – that wasn’t really my job then – my job was being on stage and memorizing lines and learning my scansion, not bumping into the furniture. My job was literally to be honest with myself make sure people believe I am who I say I am. Now, such as it is, I would never think of posting something that banal and personal.
It wasn’t until 2010 that I started to think about how people whom I’ve never met before might perceive me. Save for a random guy from ICQ in 2001 who lived in Brazil and who we used to swap guitar solos with (not joking and then one day he asked if I wanted to masturbate together and when I said “umm” he signed off and never saw him again), I had never interacted with someone online without having met them previously, or without intending on meeting them shortly. There was no precedent for it in my previous world, and there certainly was no reason for me to do it – I always had a small group of friends who made me laugh, who had a passing interest in music, who all drove cars and knew how to drink and there was no need to reach out beyond the normal in-real-life interactions I was having.
Since 2010, this is changed drastically. I left my photo up as my Twitter avatar for the better part of a year. Why did so many people not have their own photos up? Everybody on Facebook had just a standard me-on-the-porch photo like me — the most flattering of selfies they could find or if they lucked out, from that friend who brings a Rebel Ti to the party. Of my apx. 800 friends, but no one had an avatar. The only time people started to change their pictures was when, in February of 2010 there was a trend that started on Facebook to put up a picture of your celebrity doppelgänger. I had two to choose from.
When people started changing their profile picture to celebrities, this was my first instance seeing people play with the idea of masks online, something because of my theatre background I was very familiar with in real life. The use of masks — actual over-the-face masks – play a huge part in anyone’s theatre training, and are still a very common device used all the time, from avant-garde theatre to 16th century Commedia dell’arte, all the way back to Roman comedians Terence and Plautus and the Greeks. The way I always understood masks were that they are used to momentarily free from your self-consciousness. They blocked your most personal and expressive part of your body, the window to whatever, your highest concentration of physical personality, so that you can feel free to be more honest with yourself. A mask is not something you hide behind, but it is a tool to bring out who you really are. A mask doxxes yourself.
In college, I took six credits of “mask” classes for my theatre degree. If you want to know what the theatre kids were doing while you were reading Barthes and Baudelaire, we were rolling around on the floor in pajama pants wearing masks, trying to strengthen our psycho-physical connection, walking through Anne Bogart’s “viewpoints”, pacing on Michael Chekhov’s “grid”, discovering Rudulph Laban’s “efforts”. The shit we were doing makes Glee look like Long Days Journey Into Night to the lay observer.
The idea is that, while you are under a mask, you become more connected to your emotions. There is no one looking you contorting your face as you cry, or watching your eyes dip in and out of focus. There is only this mask – this creature — that you have created out of papier mâché that allows you have more freedom. I would put on this mask, and I would “become” this character that I had been creating in this class. His gait was different, his physical center was lower than mine, he was older than me, but in essence he was an extension of me. He was a timid loner, a second banana, was obsessed with Nietzsche, and would sit and read and try to approach people with little to no success.
The movement class was a community of people under a mask, with whom we’d interact with, become physical with, create relationships, ally with, fight with, flirt with. To the outside eye, it looked like a combination of Lord of the Flies and LARP-ing, only we were taking ourselves very, very seriously. There were these random objects that were placed throughout the class that people would endow with grave importance. If you touched “Judy’s” little caterpillar doll, she would scream and run to the corner. If you tried to approach “Richard”, a Vietnam vet with a heart of gold, he would growl at you. If you even tried to interact with “Susie” in the slightest she’d get her lackey and sometimes-lover “Mikhal” to steal some totem or another from you. There was no talking for most of the semester, only these characters living in this fake community, creating relationships with each other based loosely on a prompt from the professor delivered from the corner of the room, this bellowing voice asking rhetorical questions about “What happens when your worst fear becomes your reality?” or “Imagine a loved one being murdered before your eyes — how does that effect your posture?”
At the end of the hour-and-fifteen-minute class, we’d all “drop out” of our characters in a ritualistic inhale – take off the mask – and exhale. We’d then walk around the room staring at each other, unmasked kind of smiling at our real friends, raising our eyebrows at our non-friends, wide-eyed with that postcoital glow of self-satisfaction because we’ve purged our emotions and, you know, “became better actors” or something.
Inside of the class there were whole different social circles and hierarchies, with some of the most popular and gregarious people in real life reduced to untouchables within the caste system that was created. But as soon as the class was over, these simulated relationships were washed away just as quickly as the mask came off. I remember my ex-girlfriend was in the class, with whom I was not on speaking terms. Yet every once in a while we would have a little interaction as our characters that would send a chill down my spine. But after the class, we never made eye contact.
By the end of the semester, putting on the mask became such a strong physical gesture, that you were sucked into this thing that you were doing, this extension of yourself. Here’s how real it was after almost four months: One of the last exercises was taking off your mask, staying “in character”, and delivering a piece of text that got to the real spine of your character. What was the one thing that you wanted your character to say, using something you had memorized. (One guy totally read the lyrics for “Mr. Brightside” in a histrionic, maudlin monologue forever ruining the song.)
At one point during the monologues “Mary” (born Greta) had a seizure — a real seizure. She fell to the ground with one of those very real thuds and started to convulse. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen someone have a seizure but it is horrifying, and the etymology of being “seized” by some other force suddenly seemed inarguable. Because this was a movement class, we were used people doing weird shit all the time, and of course, moving in bizarre ways was essentially one of the tenets outlined in the course syllabus. But unless this was a social power-play from “Mary” who wasn’t much known for stealing the spotlight, this was something that was happening in the real world that all of a sudden the characters in “our” world had to deal with.
The professor of the class kind of “paused” the simulation and all of a sudden we had to make this choice of whether or not to get out of our characters or stay in. While someone was having an actual seizure on the ground, I would say 70% of the class stayed in character and just sort of got out of the way while the professor helped Greta up and out of the class. After that got sorted out, we went right back into the simulation, continued with the monologues, didn’t talk about the fact that someone just had a seizure but kept on with this totally outrageous charade while someone was dealing with a real life thing that more than half the class decided to have a fake life reaction to.
I get what it’s like to stay behind a mask and create a persona that is essentially an extension of you. But I never thought it to be a way of life, or a way of behaving. In real life, you can’t very well go to your job with a papier mâché mask on and, when it feels organic, heave a chair into the corner of the room because you were just following your impulses. In that class, I could heave as many chairs at as many walls as I wanted if it led to the uncovering of some lost emotion or memory. The mask was a tool to get to know yourself better, to understand that you are a multi-faceted, dynamic, person containing shit-tons of multitudes so that one day when you are cast as Iago from Othello you will know what it’s like to be overlooked, insecure, and vindictive.
You can see how this idea fails to translate into an online environment. The anonymous commenters and Twitter users rarely take of their mask after they’ve thrown a chair against the wall and say “No but my name’s not ‘clouddead69’ it’s Greg and I’m just trying to figure out who I am.” Actually, maybe that’s exactly what clouddead69 is doing.
I had no desire to go back to being behind a mask after I spent years discovering what’s underneath. That’s why I was so inspired by the Gawker piece by Mobutu (born Jeb Lund) who “doxxed” himself and “dropped out” of character, and yeah he was kind of a dick but, he wasn’t really a dick, was he? Did I really not care that Greta was having a seizure?
As someone who has now interacted with hundreds of people whom I have never met before, I’m aware that what I project isn’t 100% the truth. Wearing a mask online is as easy as not using capitalization or punctuation in tweets as a symbol of nonchalance. It’s as simple as not showing a picture of you smiling as your avatar when you’re a rather goofy, smiley person. And it’s as simple as lying, online, all the time, about anything, because you’re never going to meet this people…right?
It’s something I think about often, whether I’m being too forthcoming, whether I should switch up my Twitter game to just droll, unpunctuated tweets. But that really wouldn’t be who I am. This is who I am: someone who thinks about who they are and how they are perceived, and what kind of micro-adjustments could I make to be perceived in a better light to people who have and may never meet me, while still maintaining a the majority share of stock in who I really am. I’m still a bit shy when it comes to approaching other people.
So, when the doppelgänger thing went around on Facebook in 2010, there were two people who looked like me. One was a young Chris Elliott, and the other was a young Andy Summers, guitarist for The Police . A young Chris Elliott looked more like me, but Andy Summers looked more attractive, had better hair, and, well, wasn’t Chris Elliott and played guitar for The Police. So that’s been my mask for a long time – someone who actually kind of looks like me.