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7th October 2014

My Double Life Online

Matthew Cole puts a romantic spin on the act of befriending clammy freaks on the web.

I am a savagely dysfunctional man. Unless a friend accompanies me on my journey to university, I shamble along Oxford Road with my head bowed, desperately trying to remain invisible until I reach my destination, which is usually a quiet corner of a lecture theatre or library. I dread encounters with acquaintances to the point where every single person starts to resemble one. It’s a grotesque paranoia. I convince myself that these people, with their homogeneous faces, voices, and hairstyles, are trying to scare me into thinking they’re David or Sarah from that module I took way back when, those decent fellows who I chummed up with for one semester but felt apathetic about reconvening with thereafter. It’s not that I’m a particularly aloof or unforthcoming sort of person, I just find humans to be very draining. It’s easier to drift by. The way I see it, no matter how many friends you make in Manchester, and no matter how many gatherings you attend, the party will always be raging on elsewhere.

This rotten attitude of mine hatched in secondary school. For me, school was a largely joyless enterprise weighed down by tedious goons who were hell-bent on constantly disrupting the show. By becoming a member of an online gaming forum, a community conveniently set aside from physical reality, I was able to connect with people who shared my interests and, importantly, connect with them through the written word. My decision to join in a sense stemmed from a verbal spat I’d had with an idiot in year seven. He was a red-eyed little skinhead fella who could incite hatred in the most shy and benevolent of people; the kind of person who resents thought. We were debating (perhaps that’s too generous) the merit of two games. I was advocating the brilliance of Metroid Prime—subject of last week’s retro corner—a groundbreaking first-person sci-fi game rich in detail and atmosphere, while he grunted back about the thrill of a generic WW2 shooter totally bereft of the subtlety and imagination evident in my choice. When I’d finished mounting a cogent case against him, he bellowed an obscenity, spat at my feet, and then loped off to bother his next victim. Miffed at the calibre of argument and eager to find others who were passionate about games, I searched online and discovered a small forum, the same forum I’d be contributing to ten years later.

What’s the draw? Well, for one, the forumers I meet are generally intelligent across the board, and they’re far more tolerant than the morons you’ll find lurking in the mires of YouTube. Granted that isn’t a selling point on its own, but the key takeaway is that you can have a sustained conversation with multiple users without it devolving into conjecture over the relative promiscuity of each other’s mums. The forum also allows you to obscure your personal life and construct a new identity for yourself. It might come as a surprise, but this facility doesn’t result in a clique of pretend sexually proficient superheroes and Mafia dons who just happen to bond over Mario Kart, but rather it establishes a small community of real people who are invigorated with a confidence to talk about anything, when previously they might have opted for silence.

Over the years, the forum has been a great outlet for me to experiment with my opinions; it has prompted untapped aspects of my personality to spill out over innumerable, long-buried web pages, and it has probably sharpened my critical faculties to a level beyond anything my school could have achieved with me. It’s odd to think that so many of my past selves lie composting in the virtual universe—old, naïve, terrifically embarrassing versions of me which nevertheless represent a true, if exaggerated snapshot of who I was and who I am now. If the FBI felt like dicking around for an hour, I’m sure they could track down my forum profile and procure some devastating information about me from aeons ago—things I’d posted, biography details and all that jazz. The dossier would be a career-ender but, gladly, despite being publicly available, all the information is tucked away in the dark recesses of the internet and the pages remain pretty much unvisited, partly because nobody in their right mind would care about them. Even so, the fact remains that I have shared fragments of myself with people I’ve never met, including personal information I’ve never revealed to people I spend a lot of time with, and doing so has rarely felt unnatural.

It isn’t a misnomer to call the forum a community by the way. There are sprawling networks of users who know and familiarise with others to varying extents; there are sub-communities, friendship triangles, and niche interest circles where transactions take place almost privately. Many forumers have stayed active since the dawn of the website, so there is a very real history at work as people reproduce insider jokes that make sense to veterans but which are lost on newcomers. Sometimes new users will find this intimidating because they can’t get a handle on the group dynamics. Think of The League of Gentleman’s “are you local?” sketch and you have a fair idea.

But the history is what makes the forum so rewarding. Any gaming news, reviews, memes, or opinions can be tailored for specific groups or individuals. You can discuss subjects safe in the knowledge that someone will be receptive to them, and if they lead to arguments they can sometimes help you to tease out exactly what your position is. I won’t go as far to say that the forum represents a Socratic utopia, but at their best the debates can be ferociously fun and irreverent, even when they’re pointless.

It was on a glorious summer’s day in London that I finally met up with a bunch of members in person. Some were geeky and awkward, some were suave and outgoing, but all were super sound people. It was a surreal experience speaking with them, having known them for half my life in a solely online context, and yet at the same time it didn’t feel weird at all. We addressed each other by our usernames as if we’d been doing so since childhood. And everybody was exactly who they’d claimed to be. On the face of it, it is very easy to sniff at a group of gamers who lead double lives online, but upon deeper meditation you might well reconsider. Online communities furnish us forumers with a canvas on which to scribble away harmlessly, in an abstract zone removed from the seriousness of human responsibility. We are like forgotten graffiti artists; always active in the subways, always inhabiting public space, but never noticed.

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