The phone is ringing. Buzzing, rather, creeping its way to the table edge. Enough to pull her away from the screen. Is she going to answer it? Only if they call back. Her eyes scan the number. Not one she knew. Had she ordered something? She didn’t think so, but her brain at 4 am might as well have belonged to a different person. Her gaze returns to the monitor. A half-filled document, white text blinding lights from the cracks of the dark mode monolith. Fuck. Totally lost her rhythm. Fucking asshole, who calls at this hour? The sound stops, leaving her phone hanging over the table's edge. She nods at it, an acknowledgement somewhere between “Be silent, unholy machine” and “Thanks”. Rubs her fingers over rattling keycaps. That’s not writing. Come on. This is supposed to be your thing. You can’t not do this. The alternative is…
Vrrr. The phone rings again, nudging itself off the table, landing screen first on the laminate floor. It doesn’t stop ringing. She picks it up, wincing preemptively. Shit. A crack down the centre splinters that same unknown number.
She picks it up, “Hello?” A silence. Oh, right. “喂, 你好?” Still nothing. Taps her wrist rest in impatience.
“Who are you?” A voice, all of a sudden.
“Huh?” Who asks that? Weirdo.
“Who are you?” He asks again. His voice reverberates through the landlord white walls.
“I’m going to hang up now-”
“____, who are you, really?” The name gives her pause.
“What does it matter?”
“It matters a bit, right? It matters to you.”
Does it? Sure, the modern internet seems poised against anonymity, but does that mean your self (distinct from yourself) has to matter? The internet has made us perform at scale, but performance was always part of who we are. That supposedly Japanese (yet only found in English) proverb about the three faces (one for the world, one for friends and family, one you show no one) may be internet quote fodder, but in its appropriation of some faux Asian wisdom, it seeks to place the phenomena of multiple selves as something ancient, or at least pre-internet. Persona and person meet and drift apart, a double-helix in the macro of history and the micro of your day-to-day. From courtesy to screen names, we have and will continue to exist in multitudes. So why does it feel more palpable online? I think it’s because the separation is so distinct. Your existences continue on different tracks. How much they stray from each other is mainly in your control, as is how much they intersect.
It’s somewhat old-fashioned to go solely by a screen name these days- it’s part of my ongoing theory that everything online is designed to make you feel old when you enter your late twenties. It’s hard to pinpoint any one reason for that. Social media seems the broader culprit, but only Facebook insists you use your real name. Having a monolith in your pocket that can also take pictures and video encourages sharing personal info, but it’s not like digital cameras are a recent invention. Maybe it’s just that people are less suspicious of the internet. It’s been around long enough now, long enough for us to become complacent. After all, these companies have your data already, right? Our errata are spread across the web. If you wanted to, you could find out a lot about me. About myself. Just search-
“-your name. Your REAL name. It’s plastered all over the Internet. Old forum profiles, blogs, accounts… it’s rudimentary to connect the dots. You really should have known better.”
“Known better to what? Why does it matter? You wanna out me? Have you mistaken me for someone popular?” A heavy sigh of white noise.
“I want you to stop being a coward.” A change of tone.
“Being anonymous isn’t cowardly.”
“Oh, sure. Not that you’re very good at it. You can be voiceless, faceless. I don’t care. But even though you can be anyone on the Internet, you still flinch. You could be the person you want to be. But you don’t even try. You’re-
-too focused on following the same unwritten rules we are constrained by in meatspace. People Make Games did an excellent video on VRChat recently, showing through interviews how, at its best, it’s akin to the promise of the early Internet- a free-wheeling collective of copyright infringement, open to all to express themselves, whether that be role-playing as a K-Mart manager or experimenting with gender identity (or both!), it’s a stark contrast with the sexless corporate metaverses the likes of Facebook want to sell us on. Of course, this has obvious downsides that the PMG video goes into more detail on: public rooms are the same hives of bigotry you’ll see on any online forum with lax moderation. The presence of VR can make that more threatening and give internet strangers exciting new ways to be awful. Mamoru Hosoda’s Belle attempts to interrogate this issue- in its virtual world of “U”, a vigilante group called the “The Justices” exists to protect users from bad actors. The closest analogue to this group in VRChat is the Loli Police Department, but while their name and aesthetic are grotesque, they don’t have any actual power. The moderation and ownership of U is something the movie doesn’t explore, but the Justices can somehow “unveil” avatars- revealing their real name and forcing their avatar to conform to their real-world physical appearance. The film is smart enough not to depict this as a positive thing, but it gets muddled by the end. Without spoiling too much, our heroes violate a user’s privacy to track down exactly where they live from a live stream. They don’t out the person publicly, but there is the uncomfortable implication that cyber vigilantism is OK as long as it’s for the right reasons, that privacy can and should be revoked if you think a person is in danger. Perhaps there are cases where that would be acceptable, but that power shouldn’t be in the hands of any user to use sans accountability or oversight. And yet that’s the threat you must live with online, regardless of how many layers of anonymity you choose to have. Your persona can be revoked at any time, for any reason. The only real defence is-
-obscurity. That’s where she wanted to remain. The fewer people knew her, the fewer people knew about her. She could stay in this room in this endless world of apartment blocks, reducing her presence until she is free from judgement, from the fear of somehow being inauthentic, or authentically something sneered at. Maybe the voice was right. Maybe she was a coward. Sometimes she wanted to be a model kit person, parts snipped from a mess of flesh runners, carefully sanded and snapped together into a whole. Which face today? Which accessory? Each one fits, but the core is static, a purely shaped appearance. She stares at her hands. No, this is what she had. That useful dissociation goes away if you care too much for your body. The ghost firmly in the shell makes for a lot more responsibilities and failures perceived instead of fading into the background of wilful nonexistence.
“A lurker. A life uncommitted. Nobody hates you. Nobody lo-”
She throws the phone against the wall. It does not shatter like she wants. Reality refuses to conform to image. But it’s a break from the voice. It had sounded vaguely familiar but wrong, like the photofit faces of people in dreams.
“Go ahead. Ignore me.” Or not. It screeches and strains—anything to make it hear her. “Just play your-
Video games are yet another medium in which persona thrives. A video long since purged from YouTube has burned into my brain. The narrator describes the absurdity of living in the real world, defining the stereotypical achievements of “house and 2.5 kids” as worthless compared to saving the universe as Commander Shepard in Mass Effect. Think that “I’M A GAMER, NOT BECAUSE I HAVE NO LIFE, BUT BECAUSE I CHOOSE TO HAVE MANY” T-shirt but more depressing. It’s a not entirely uncommon sentiment. As one 4chan anon put it, “reality is the stinking mud from which the pure white lotus of fiction blooms”. I think I believed that at some point. But even from a more normal Video Game Liker perspective, whether you’re inhabiting a character defined solely by the narrative or something more customisable, part of the appeal is becoming someone you’re not or want to be. How immersed you feel as a character depends on your ability to suspend disbelief and the perspective you play in. A straight cis man playing as a woman in a third-person game can start that “classic” debate about it being gay, inevitably leading to “actually it’s gayer to not play as a woman, least I’m not staring at a man’s ass” etc. All very tiresome. But hey, remember Dark Souls 2? Why was there a gender coffin? Its predecessors and successors have more or less robust character creators, but only Dark Souls 2 has a magic gender change coffin. Sure, other games have things like that, even other disappointing sequels. Fable 2 has a Potion of Transmogrification, though as a product of the UK, it naturally has to be worth 6969 gold, look both phallic and like breasts, and prompt random townspeople to ask, DIDN’T YOU USE TO BE A MAN/WOMAN? The gender coffin is both far less embarrassing and far more thought-provoking. You can use it infinitely, so it doesn’t have the permanence this death object implies. It’s also guarded by ogres which are tanky as all hell, but I don’t think there’s much to read into there except “It’s Dark Souls 2”. A lack of permanence is a running theme in 2. The people of Drangleic are losing their memories, the kingdom so long in ruins that signifier and signified have drifted apart. The gender coffin might not be a literal transformation but a representation of our unmoored protagonist, memories faded to the point of being unsure who they are. Mechanically, this game introduced the ability to respec to the series, reducing the chance you’ll screw yourself with a dodgy build. Why not also let you change gender? It’s a long game. You might just want a change. Indeed, Elden Ring enables you to change your appearance at any time. But I dunno. The coffin is just cooler. Death and rebirth, not just engaging with a menu at a-
-mirror. She tried not to look at it, the flickering phone screen casting her face back at her, cloaked in shadow.
“Why are you like this? Can’t you just be better? Other people manage it. At least write. It’s not hard. Just bleed into your laptop.”
“That isn’t…that doesn’t help anyone.”
“If it doesn’t help, why haven’t you hung up?” She says nothing. Stares at the curtains. [A beast howls outside the window, tearing through the street.](/meat-space.html) She can’t. “Your silence says everything.” She’ll never be rid of it. The phone is just a vector. When she first found out, she’d fantasised about removing the voice by hand, rending it from her brain. Google search history trended from exit bags to trepanning. Never quite acted on that impulse. Never caught the bus. Give up on person. Invest in persona. Twist and tie her veins into ethernet cables. Transfer her consciousness-
-online, I’m a disaster of passion, a collection of disparate interests. It’s hard to be anything else as a faceless avatar, drifting from forums to message boards to Twitter. Not consistent enough for a brand, which is the real legacy of online existence. After Engaging with my favourite Content Creators, it’s good to take lessons to gain more Impressions on my own Content. Share something about your experience. Be personable. We’re all together in electric dreams, “Horror person in China”. What should I say about China? I live here. My grasp on the language is limited, but I try. When I talk about it, it seems to travel further; the ecosystem built around me has more pathways for that kind of thing. But leaning further into that feels dishonest. There are people in the know who can offer you more. Horror? Well, that comes easier. It’s media. I have things to say about it, but it can’t be consequential. That’s just the nature of it. You don’t need to be more online, I suppose. But you do need to be-
-something more than this. Things have drifted too far apart. The phone had ended up in her hand, again. “I’m trying. I’ll keep trying. Please. Just for now. Give me a break.”
“We both know that isn’t going to happen. Besides, we have so much to talk about.”
“No, we don’t. Leave me alone.”
“The blahaj in the room. Why did you buy that? It’s just a stereotype.” The glass of the touchscreen is getting hotter, sticking to her skin.
“I like sharks. Is that enough?” It’s not strange to want something to hug at close hand. Dead eyes and floppy felt teeth: less a shark and more a totem of anhedonia.
“Sure. That's the only reason. Do you feel part of the group? Surrounded yourself with enough accoutrements to be a real person yet?”
“It’s too late. Everyone is too young. You missed your chance.”
“That isn’t… true.”
“You keep telling yourself that.”
“It isn’t!” She tries to peel the phone away from her face, but it's stuck, it’s fucking stuck, and it keeps getting hotter and hotter. “LEAVE ME THE FUCK ALONE, CAN’T I JUST… JUST ONE DAY…”
“Don’t shout. What would the neighbours think?” She keeps pulling.
A sound like tearing open a vacuum-sealed sandwich. Meat spills out. The phone hangs from her face from a flap of torn skin. Her screams echoed in the drywall. But the job is only halfway done. Still a part of her. She stumbles over to the bathroom mirror. Face obscured in soap scum, save for a rectangle of red. Flashes of hospital visits, acetone burning her nostrils. Days spent with a heart full of electrically charged puke, an organ inverted in purpose, spreading its anti-life through heavy flesh. Survival mode slumber walking. A pair of nail scissors between spent toothpaste tubes. She threads her shaking fingers through the rings, nerves translated to vibrating metal. Just one cut, maybe two, then she could be rid of it, this--millstone of online discourse, 4chan. I can’t not mention it, especially when it forgoes names (user or otherwise) in favour of purely anonymous posting. Well. Kind of. I talked about this in an article from uh, nearly two years ago, but whether users use tripcodes or not, they end up playing roles, grouping themselves into invisible collectives of shared reaction images and ideals of board culture. Since then, little has changed, except that users call each other tranny rather than fag. Oh, sure, that was there before, along with the YWNBAW copypasta, and I’ve honestly seen uglier parts of this “culture war” (culture, because people being allowed to exist must be treated the same way as arguments over Star Wars) on Twitter, a supposedly more heavily moderated platform. The difference now is pure frequency. The usage of the “-fag” suffix beforehand was mostly a dumb, often self-deprecating “joke”, though the line was always fuzzy. This is the same website that would have weekly “homolust” threads because even the sharing of yaoi has to be cloaked in weird terminology. So too with “-tranny”, though it is now pure pejorative, with few if any labelling themselves as such save for on /lgbt/. I had mostly left (tendrils of habit pull me back) before /lgbt/ really took off, but even on my prior haunts (/a/, /m/, /v/) you had anons pining to be anything other than what they were, though granted under layers and layers of irony. The internet makes you trans/trans makes you internet. Who knew that people who didn’t feel comfortable in their skin, who felt alone and depressed, would spend a lot of time online? On the net, we perform, yes, but you can choose your role. You can choose-
-to DO IT, DO IT RIGHT FUCKING NOW. JUST BE RID OF IT. She closes her eyes-
Hanging by a thread, the increasing weight pulling ever stronger on frayed nerves. The more you fight it, the more it fights you.
It falls into the sink in a clatter of plastic and blood. Fingers meet wound. Instinctive. Not anything that made sense. Bubbles of burnt skin around the edges. Didn’t recognise her own face. Bloody palm meets her reflection. Meat cute.
“YOU FUCKING IDIOT”. It returns, submerged in herself. “YOU CAN’T GET RID OF ME. NO MATTER HOW HARD YOU TRY. I WILL ALWAYS HATE YOU, HATE YOU UNTIL YOU ARE BETTER, BUT YOU-”
She tosses it to the ground and stomps on it.
Again. Crystals of glass skitter across the tiles.
“PULL OUT YOUR VEINS AND STRANGLE YOUR CUNTING THROAT”
Something black oozes from the splintered remains. Again.
“LIVELEAK YOURSELF INTO A PUDDLE OF BLOOD AND TWISTED LIMBS”
Streaming blood and tears. Again.
“LET YOUR GORE WASH OUT TO SEA”
Again. Again. Again.
She ground it with her heel.
“WASTE OF FLESHhhhh…”
Something leaps from underfoot, a sleep-deprivation-corner-of-your-eye creature made manifest. She tracked it under the coffee-stained sofa, which may as well have meant it no longer existed. It’d be back. Washed her face, the same routine motions in an attempt to reclaim some basic normality. Kind of. Her face. Battered, but hers. Returns her hand to the bloodied print. Yes, it’d be back. But so would she.No conclusions.
No punching the mirror.But no walking away, either.
This needs something beyond catharsis.No violent ends.
“It will require trust. To bring you to me.”I know.
Because it isn’t a story.It’s your life.
FAITH IN PERSONA