8.10.08

On anonymity and being a 'girl' blogger

For Aishwarya, who reminded me that I hadn't quite detailed this, and has been kind enough not to nag me about it in all the weeks since.

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There are many ways in which blogging can mess with your mind, and assumptions about pseudonymous bloggers is right up there.

When I began blogging, I did so with a deliberate intent for it to be a fresh start. It was not to be an extension of my identity, although it would be sourced from me. I wasn't sure what I was going to blog about, and I didn't want to inflict this on anybody I knew, so I chose not to go public with my identity. And for those who didn't know me, well, it really shouldn't have mattered who I was.

Of course, I knew it would matter, because none of us are really comfortable with the anonymous or the unknown. And in a world that has become so used to - and wary of - hoaxes, attempting to ask someone to accept that you're a decent person and what you say is on the level, is perhaps attempting something rather quixotic.

And so, I reached a decision. I didn't want (need) to let some strangers into my personal life, but I was happy discussing, and being educated and introduced to, all other issues. This was not to be a diary, but rather, an outlet for the randomness inherent in me that circumstances had led to being mildly curtailed.

But I decided to take it a step further, and not describe myself at all. No details about what gender I belonged to, where I was from, my approximate age-grouping, nothing (it's a different matter that most of this has now emerged).

This decision to remain undescribed was partially triggered by a curiosity to know just how far people would go in accepting what I was writing, and how they would intepret it. Especially given that the circles I was bound to end up in would be full of literary, questioning minds. At what point, I wondered, would somebody say "Yes, yes, this is all very interesting, but how do we know you really believe this, and are not just yanking our chain*?"

(...and before you get all angry at feeling as being made part of some social experiment, please do note the 'partially' in the above para).

It was also partly encouraged by a curiosity to see how the words sounded like without context, with any bias about who was writing them. Even to me. I wanted to see whether all these things I was thinking and writing made sense when I re-read them (while trying to assume somebody else had written them). This practice is....interesting...because sometimes when you re-visit thoughts that you pour out spontaneously and passionately, you discover that they don't really make as much sense when they're viewed more calmly (This is not good for your ego, and leads to a whole new can of jumping jackfruit). Or, sometimes, they do make sense, but you discover additional angles and insights (by far the tastier, and more preferred option).

(This is why, if you ever go through the archives again, you might notice that the posts have been edited, or (in drastic cases) deleted).

I guess it was also because of my uncertainty over the whole blogging thing itself. I wasn't sure why I was doing it, wasn't sure how long I would keep at it, and I wanted to retain the option of being able to pack it all in and leave with a minimum of fuss if I got bored or frustrated with it.

This whole approach seemed to be acceptable, although there were the expected speculations. Largely, though, people were ready to accept the posts and the blogger at face-value (and don't I thank you all for it). However, once I got set in, and began to get read, something rather interesting occurred.

People began to assume that I was female.

Which wasn't such a obviously-wrong thing to do, given the number of female-rights news articles that I kept pointing to, and all those recipe-posts. And it seemed to get confirmed when I left a comment on one of my posts using a friend's login - who happened to be female.

But.

It was an assumption. And like all group activities, it took one person to decide that the assumption was true, state it publicly one day, and everybody else assumed so. It didn't help that I didn't explicitly deny it - I just sort of ignored it. But it gained ground and within a few days, seemed to be a firmly established fact. To the extent that even new readers to the blog assumed the same.

Although, I can somewhat understand that last bit, because when I visit a new blog, I try to get to know more about the blogger from the comments. But what was interesting was that this assumption was accepted despite any evidence to support it from the actual writing.

This was all very fascinating. Anything that I now wrote, was being perceived through the lens of my being a female (apart from, possibly, Space Bar, who had her doubts). Even though these were the same things that I'd been blogging about from the beginning. And as this continued, and as I began to mention more about myself, the image of me that others had (or, that I seemed to believe they had) gradually diverged further and further from who I really was.

To the extent that even I began to see this person as somebody real. Increasingly, when I sat down to blog, I would feel the presence of a young woman who was lucky enough to be able to eat what she wanted without having to worry about weight, liked to cook, loved SF&F, was vehemently outraged about the rights of women (especially in India), and who was given to madcap antics (at least in her own mind).

It began to subtly affect the matter of my posts and my comments. I increasingly spoke about myself and my habits and likes and dislikes, trying to see if someone would realise I didn't seem like a woman, but it only seemed to make people think I was some kind of tomboy. I increasingly became careful about how I would word my comments (especially in discussions/arguments), so as to say what I wanted to, without completely revealing myself to be not-female.

It was also interesting in a literary sense. I remember that somebody (probably OTP) had linked to some online 'calculator' that would try to define you as male/female depending on the content of your blog. And I realised how silly that was. Because in speech, we casually - and perhaps unconsciously - use words that relate to our gender. But in writing, most of this gets stripped away - at least, if you write. Because that is the mark of a good writer - being able to convince the reader that they can truly detail what the character is feeling/thinking, without letting the reader even slightly remember what gender the writer belongs to. And if you visit a large number of blogs and don't try to find out anything about the blogger, or if you're given blind samples of blog-extracts, it would be seriously difficult to try and identify whether the blogger is male or female (exceptions for Diaryists, of course).

It was fascinating to see how people also received the posts, because of the female-assumption. Take this post for instance. I suspect that if I had written it today, I would have got a lot more "ugghs" and "ewws", followed by "such a typical guy thing to do". Then, it caused mild surprise. And there were others like that. And if you haven't realised it, my Urf-post was the ideal Urf, because not only was it not in my style, it made people convinced I was the gender that I really wasn't.

It even got to the stage where I semi-considered "coming out", and confirming my 'female identity'. I was tempted to start writing posts which were subtly but definitely female in tone, so as to make people seem that I was slipping up about who I was without realising it (yes, too many spy movies).

Thankfully, better sense prevailed and I chose to end the matter when I did a few months ago. Because anything else would have simply been a betrayal of trust....and a rather sad and silly thing to do. Also, it was seriously curbing the kind of posts I wanted to write, and the comments. How things are now, is much better.

Now, lest you think I'm laughing at everybody who was part of this then - I'm certainly not, ok? I understand why you would have thought what you did - I would have done the same. The fact that you accepted it, and didn't question me, is a mark of the level of trust involved, and I'm thankful for that. But it's fascinating nevertheless, and I'm just detailing what was, and why.

....although there are days when I wonder how much fun it would have been if I had kept quiet about being a guy.


* What chain? Does anybody know the origin of this phrase?

18 comments:

Space Bar said...

you know, i can't help feeling now that you're fucking with us all again and in a few months it'll turn out that you were female after all...

(don't mind me. i may be wrong. and if i'm not, you can do a post another few months down the line and say, space bar had her doubts.)

Alok said...

I came across your blog only a few days ago and I don't read too many blogs so I didn't know all this history. But this seems to me a very fascinating "experiment" (even though it was unintended). It shows very well what feminist philosophers call "gender performativity" that is, gender identity as nothing but repetitive social rituals and acts (conditioned by social institutions and norms) and they argue that any gendered identity is essentially "inauthentic". So in brief, kudos, and I hope your readers will stop worrying about your gender in future.

Falstaff said...

I must admit I've never understood this fascination people seem to have with people's 'real' identities. which is why my response to the non-female revelation was and remains: so?

km said...

So will you or won't you be wearing that hot red dress to the office Christmas party this year?

Aishwarya said...

I actually assumed you were male for some reason when I first saw you comment at Ros' blog.

And I demand that you wear this dress KM speaks of.

Vaudevillian said...

mordern art, this.

genius.

Lekhni said...

I wonder, can the thought that some people (who you've never met) think you are female somehow make you start writing posts that are "female in tone", whatever that means? Or make you start thinking like a woman?

Is there something deeper going on here? ;)

??! said...

Space:
It wasn't deliberate!!

Also, would I lie to you?

Alok:
Hello there.

Unconsciously, this may have been what I slipped into in the last few weeks of that 'experiment'. Writing about my male social rituals etc in order to be caught out as a guy.

and I think they have. This post was long overdue.

Falsie:
Exactly! Read the word for itself, not who wrote it.

KM:
Demmit! Who gave you a preview of my party wardrobe? Who?

Although, I'll have you know it's dark burgundy, not 'red'.

Aish:
You have mentioned this, and so it seems that some people did pick up on it. Hurrah! I dub thee Lady Perspicity.

Vaudie:
You've been away! Welcome back.

Lekhni:
It can (I mentioned, no?), and it does. Let me edit the post to explain how.

DewdropDream said...

HAHA!!! @ KM's comment.

First time when I came here I did think you might be female but that bhram was done away with pretty soon... you sounded male to be sure, to me anyway. And very shortly thereafter, since there wasn't any clue per se, I decided it really did not matter who/what you were since what you wrote was top of the tops. Is, I mean.

km said...

There's a deep Buddhist debate lurking in this thread (but for now, I am content with red/burgundy dress joke :))

Shyam said...

Hmmm... thinking back, I think I chanced on your blog about the time that you "came out", or perhaps just before. But I sure couldnt tell on trawling through your earlier posts whether you were male or female. Me, I'm interested in how well I'm entertained when I go blog-hopping. Doesnt matter if
the blogger is male or female, just as long as the writing is interesting/clever/amusing/thought-provoking :) All of which yours is, so if you're a poly-limbed polka-dotted green martian who likes dark burgundy dresses, that's fine! (But PLS may we see a pic?)

km said...

??!: Think of a dog (on a leash) being walked...when you want him to stop sniffing lady dogs, you yank his chain. (Unless you do want him to sniff..in which case you yank your own chain.)

NightWatchmen said...

Hey what do you mean, you are not the paranoid android from the 35th century going back in time to do a project on "Obsessions of human bloggers about other human bloggers offline identities in the 21st century"

??! said...

DDD/Shyam:
That's the best attitude to take towards pseudonymous blogs anyway.

KM:
Shall we get all mystical about this? And dude, what an explanation.

NW:
Hush now...this is all to throw everybody off the scent.

Flaffy said...

I think it's a prisonyard saying. I can imagine the big con snarling at the small con, "Stop yanking my chain!"

??! said...

Flaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaffy:
You're here again!

Pri said...

disco thinks you're secretly a fish but disco's stupid in winter months.

Cynic in Wonderland said...

oh i thought you were female for a while because you knew more vegetables than i did. simple deduction. it was mortifying that a guy could do so. having said that, had some doubts after a while. there was a ..well, bite ( for lack of a better word) which is more male than otherwise (girls would have a bit more claws than bite. okay that doesnt make sense).

but you know, there are people who write androgynous kind of stuff, and there are some who sort of push themselves into a stereotype.

but its an interesting experiment for all that - and once you have a image in the mind, you perceive each post with the collective weight of that mental baggage.

And i do suspect that there is such a thing as a feminine or masculine tone - even for published authors. i cannot see any self respecting male author spend three pages describing a stiletto :D