MIDWAY: Online ego monster

The first person I knew who had a website of his own was a fellow Washington journalist. This was when many journalists were still just getting into email, but the URL for this site quickly circulated around town and around the world. Why? Well, we were all impressed by the technological savvy. But we were absolutely astounded by the solipsism. What on earth had gotten into Joe? This was a modest, soft-spoken and self-effacing fellow, yet his website portrayed him as an egotistical monster.

Or so it seemed at the time. All the elements that struck us as obnoxious eight years ago no longer seem that way. They are now virtually required for any writer’s website. The web address, of course, was his name: JoeJournalist.com. It’s hard to recapture why that seemed pretentious but it did. Then there was his deadpan list of books he’d written and awards he’d won. And quotes from other journalists about how wonderful he is. It all seemed totally out of character, immodest. Poor Joe! Had the web driven him crazy? If so, we are all crazy now. There is something about the web that brings out the ego monster in everybody.

This is strange. Anonymity is supposed to be one of the signature qualities of the web. As that dog in the New Yorker cartoon famously says: “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” The Internet is a place where you can interact with other people and have complete control over how much they know about you. But anonymity does not seem to interest many of the web’s most devoted users.

The most successful sites seem to be those where people can abandon anonymity and stake their claims as unique individuals. Social networking sites such as MySpace (for which Rupert Murdoch paid $580m last year) are vast celebrations of solipsism. “My interests are music, girls, sports, clothes, cars and ooh did I mention girls,” writes Lex, a featured member of MySpace.com. Charming, though slightly less so when it develops that Lex is 23 and includes a picture of his wife. Or is this blonde babe really his wife?

For the ultimate in solipsism, check out twitter.com, where you can answer the question, “What are you doing?” At 7:47 am on Monday, for example, Lynda was going to get a glass of cold water.