Swapping Ages, Genders In Cyberspace

High-profile online deception cases have emerged as of late.

hide captionHigh-profile online deception cases have emerged as of late.

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Two different bloggers claiming to be lesbians have been recently outed as straight men. Host Michel Martin and Sherry Turkle, Professor of Social Science and Technology Massachusetts Institute of Technology, explore what motivates someone to adopt a new persona on the Internet, one that may be radically different from his or her everyday life.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Internships have become an important way for young people to get work experience and a foot in the door with a future employer. But now some critics are saying interns are just being exploited for cheap labor. And they're telling young people to ask hard questions about the value of the experience. We'll talk about getting the most from an internship in a few minutes.

MARTIN: On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog. That 1993 cartoon foreshadowed some news from the Internet's blogosphere.

In recent days, a 40-year-old married American man admitted to blogging online for months as the widely read Gay Girl in Damascus. Tom MacMaster is his name. And just a few days after that admission, the editor of a blog called LezGetReal.com was revealed to be a 58-year-old retired male Air Force pilot from California. And at one point, the two men had actually communicated online as their assumed identities.

MARTIN: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other." And she joined us from her home office in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Welcome, thanks for joining us.

SHERRY TURKLE: My pleasure.

MARTIN: Now, obviously one of the reasons we called you is that you've actually been thinking about this for years. You've actually written a number of books talking about the fact that that is one of the things that the online experience allows you to do. So I wanted to start by asking what have you discovered about why people choose to take on an online identity that's different from their real life identity. And has that changed over the years that you've been thinking about this?

TURKLE: Well, yes and yes. I mean, let's first start with why people do it. There are two important reasons and the current examples illustrate both. One reason for gender swapping, which is one of the main ways that people do it - or age swapping - when an older person plays a younger person or a younger person plays an older person, is to play with identity. To play with an aspect of self that really is hard to work out in the real. I called it an identity workshop.

But there's another aspect, which I think your two gentlemen who took the role of younger lesbians illustrate - and you play with sexuality, which is a very big part of it. I mean, it's not just gender, but people are playing with sexual issues as well.

But the second motivation, in addition to having that experience of identity for themselves, is both of these gentlemen wanted to do something that in some way would comment on a social situation. They wanted to say something about being a woman in the Middle East.

MARTIN: Let me play a clip, in fact, from an interview that Tom MacMaster, who was previously known as Gay Girl in Damascus, that he did with London's Guardian newspaper about posing as the fictional Amina Arraf. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

TOM MACMASTER: What I don't regret is the fact that I did hopefully bring a good bit of attention to real human rights abuses in Syria. It's a real situation that real people are facing.

MARTIN: Now, one of the things that's interesting about this is that there are many people who are outraged about this. They are outraged about this in the same way that many people are outraged at a, for example, a literary hoax.

TURKLE: Well, what I think the clips and the outrage show - the clip because he's proud of what he performed and the outrage because people are taking it not as a performance, but as a place where he should not have been performing, but he should've been real, is that we are currently writing the rules of who we're supposed to be when we're online.

Now we have Facebook and a whole new idea that when you go online, you go online as you.

MARTIN: But, on the other hand, though, novelists do this all the time and they're applauded for brilliance. So what's the difference?

TURKLE: Well, the difference is is that we are working through right now, as a culture, how we are going to have multiple spaces on the Internet for all of these different things. When you're getting a report - and I think this is why the Syrian story is so poignant and so important - when you were getting a report about conditions in Syria from this woman in Syria, there's kind of a shock when we're brought up to the reality that, no, for some people this is a performance space.

MARTIN: And not to - finally, before we let you go - not to make you the Ms. Manners of the Internet...

TURKLE: Right.

MARTIN: But I'm wondering if there was an etiquette that either of these two gentlemen could have followed that would have allowed them to do what they wanted to do without making people feel so betrayed.

TURKLE: Oh, I think I'm going to step away from the Ms. Manners of the etiquette. But I think the little bit of a disingenuousness in the Syrian reportage and the way in which those reports say that I raised consciousness about what was happening to women in Syria, and be surprised that the people didn't take that, as though that were really first person accounts of a Syrian young woman.

MARTIN: Sherry Turkle is director of the MIT initiative on technology and self. She's the author most recently of "Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other." She was kind enough to take time out from her home office in Provincetown, Massachusetts to talk to us. Professor Turkle, thanks so much for joining us.

TURKLE: My pleasure.

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