This post is about how people present themselves when they are online and how we, readers and other web personae, perceive such people, or should perceive them. It's interesting what happens when a controversial--or potentially controversial--topic is brought up and subsequently thrust onto the public. Some people take it well, opening up civil debate and otherwise trying to get at the heart of the issue; others throw a fit or make it known that they are part of the problem (which, I think, is what happened with the whole RaceFail09 thing). Should such people be held accountable for what they say online in the same way we would hold them accountable if they said the same things in real life? Should we differentiate between who someone is in real life from who they are or pretend to be online?
My opinion is "yes" on both questions. Look, the Interwebs is a wonderful place. It has forums for just about any topic you can possibly imagine and plenty of places for people to meet up, read, discuss, and otherwise share their passions with other folks. The online SF/F community is particularly strong, which I really appreciate. But the Interwebs is also a place where people can escape from their real lives. They can pretend to be wizards or Barbie Doll enthusiasts (or perhaps come out of the closet if they really are those things). For the most part, the Interwebs is a place where you can either be yourself or be someone else and not have to face the consequences of that in real life...except when the two cross over.
By default, your online persona and your real life persona are the same person. How you act online is only an extension of how you are inside. This isn't to say that someone who says something racist or sexist or simply screwed up is necessarily a racist or sexist, etc. Quite the opposite, actually. We have to understand that human beings are constantly battling with conflicts inside of them. You can attempt to claim that you hold no negative qualities, but it wouldn't take long for someone to find something to poke at. Some people are conflicted by matters of race, even if they really aren't racist people, per se--sort of how making a racist joke doesn't necessarily make you a racist in the same sense as a Nazi or KKK member. We often rip on people for having these flaws, when the reality is that we should be talking about them. It doesn't help anyone to tear into people who are conflicted inside by something, whether that be a racist thought or some negative ideal.
But there is a line. There always is. It's one thing to make a racist joke online; it's entirely another to say something that is exceedingly racist and expect people to make the distinction between your online persona and your real life persona.
As a real life example, I'm drawn to the story of the writer who called for the suicide of one of his critics. True, this is a story of extremes, but few are willing to make the distinction between who he is online and who he is in real life, because the two are blended. This fellow didn't make a joke; he said those things with all seriousness, knowing full well how such words might influence people. And he should be held accountable online and offline for those words, just as we should hold people accountable who do things at a similar level in other subjects.
How you act online will reflect on you as a person, even if you are only playing a part. Nothing is "just words" anymore. If I said I hate a certain people (say, of a certain race or something), that will reflect badly on me both here on my blog and in the real world, should anyone make the connection between this place and my real self. Unless you want people to see you as a racist bastard in the real world, you should be careful what role you play online. I'm generally against people pretending to be something they are not, particularly when such pretending means they play one sort of person online and another sort of person offline. It doesn't matter what role you try to play anymore; online or offline, it's all the same.