“Reed, I am having an emergency. We need to go upstairs to your room right now.”
“Ok, let’s go,” I said to my friend Michael as I gestured toward the stairs. Upon escaping from the party and arriving in my room, I asked Michael the obvious question: “What’s going on?” His answer was far more complicated than I could have predicted.
Michael, who isn’t old enough to buy alcohol, has been in a dedicated relationship for the better half of the last decade. “Okay dude, please just let me tell you what happened before you start judging me. You promise?”
“Yeah, I promise.”
“Ok, so a few weeks ago I downloaded Tinder on my phone.” I quickly shot Michael an inquisitive look. “Yeah, I know, but look — all I have been doing is swiping right on everyone. I downloaded it because I just wanted to see who would swipe right on me, I don’t actually want to do anything.” I shot Michael another more confused look about where this was all going. “Well, I swiped right on this cute girl and she messaged me! So I responded and she kept messaging me. She is here, downstairs, at the party. I really care about Sarah (his long-term girlfriend) and I don’t want to ruin things with her and if I stayed down there I think I would have made a decision that I would regret.”
The most immediate response I had to this situation was to think Michael was acting like just another scuzzy guy who was trying to cheat on his girlfriend — and maybe that was the truth. But, another part of me saw Michael tangled up in a much more complicated web composed of desire, cyberspace and reality. Michael and I always joke that the internet raised us. From a young age, both of us had nearly unlimited access to the computer and we quickly crafted virtual versions of ourselves.
The first virtual version of myself was my “Club Penguin” account; for Michael, it was “RuneScape.” In online gaming lobbies, people don’t have an identity they can be held accountable for. The other people are complete strangers who only know you by your username, creating a breeding ground for absurdity and unbounded speech. For many gamers, usually middle schoolers, this anonymity is an opportunity to say the most vulgar, disgusting and offensive things imaginable.
For someone like Michael, who still games on a near daily basis, this sophomoric behavior is no longer shocking or provocative in the cyberspace; Michael is completely numb to it. In a game lobby, people’s characters aren’t real and neither are the words that people speak into their microphones — dying in “Call of Duty” means nothing and no one is actually coming to your house to have relations with your mother, no matter how much they insist they already have.
Creating a character in an online game is an odd hybrid between reality and simulated non-reality. The people are real, as is everything they say, but the space in which these interactions occur is immaterial.
In cyberspace, someone can try new games, create new characters and say outrageous things as much as they want. The actions I take in one game have absolutely no bearings on the actions I take in another game; cyber identities are anonymous and separable.
For Michael, creating an account on Tinder was like downloading a new multiplayer game. He was just creating another virtual manifestation of his identity that wasn’t attached to his personhood. Or so he thought. Michael didn’t see his Tinder account as something that was real — he didn’t see it as something that could manifest itself in real life any more than “Fortnite” could. Under this view, Michael’s
Tinder account was the same as looking longingly at someone in class or lurking on someone’s Instagram account — acting in the ambiguous space of desire, but not cheating. When Michael saw his Tinder match in person, the material reality of his situation set in. This was not the same type of cyber identity as “Fortnite” or “Runescape.”
A logical response to this might be to say that creating a Tinder account is much more similar to making a social media account than it is to creating a character in a video game. After all, social media accounts are virtual manifestations of real people, not simulated characters, and on Tinder, someone depicts their real self. Tinder, however, does not operate in the same space of visibility that Instagram and Facebook do.
A Tinder account is not a public landing space where anyone can view your profile, you cannot use Google to see if someone has a Tinder; after swiping, an account can vanish into the cyberspace forever. Instagram and Facebook accounts are designed with the purpose of sharing the happenings of an internal life, while a Tinder account is designed with the purpose of creating a private life with someone else. In short, a Facebook account is always attached to a public image, while a Tinder account pursues a semi-anonymous and private interest.
In Michael’s state of shock and panic, he reached for the buoy that was my room so that his virtual identity didn’t drown his real identity. It is unclear if Michael’s story is just a contemporary recasting of an old narrative about a gluttonous man seeking to cheat on his girlfriend or if Michael really didn’t understand the material consequences of his Tinder account. Either way, it is becoming increasingly clear that our virtual selves are producing material realities on their own terms.
*Names have been changed to help protect people’s identities
Reed Rosenbacher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org