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Does your mask offer too much social distance?

People have varying degrees of skill and play with masks in real life, just as they did with old-style online identities

Like old-style online identities, people have varying degrees of skill and play with masks.
Like old-style online identities, people have varying degrees of skill and play with masks.

Recently I had an interaction online that startled me in a way I had forgotten. Someone DM’d me on Twitter asking for some information. I made a couple of calls and sent the handle what s/he asked for. I had no sense of who the person behind the pseudonymous handle was, beyond a dim awareness of it being a benign, nerdy presence. In the next few DMs back and forth, all fairly formal and polite, I had the galling realization that it was an ex boyfriend. I choked a bit and went over our interactions. He clearly thought I knew who he was but he had been correctly distant and not presumptuous. Had I been rude, unintentionally? When I recovered from the shock, I sent a couple of more DMs enquiring about his general well-being. It has been a while since internet masks have been effective. In my chequered youth, it was completely normal to have many secret identities online. You could have your blog, your supposedly secret blog, your really secret blog and more. You wore metaphorical dark glasses and moustache in one corner of the internet, a Xena the Warrior Princess costume in another and a nun’s habit in a third. You had long interactions with people over months and years without finding out very much about their IRL nitty-gritties. And if you did eventually put two and two together and figure out who the person was, you did a mental reset and carried on in different ways. Those identities were often short-term and often parallel.

I have been thinking of those precarious anonymities as we have embraced our new be-masked lives. My friend Nimi Ravindran wrote recently on Facebook about what she called mysterious masquerades. “The last three times I stepped out to buy groceries I’ve run into person X. Someone I know reasonably well. I’ve smiled and said hi each time forgetting that I am wearing a mask and shades. All three times person X has looked right through me and continued on. Four days ago I ran into a friend, someone I’ve known for 15 years. Same same happened… but I yelled out… Hey, it’s me. She asked, ‘who are you?’ I had to ask her to stop being an idiot and use her brains. It worked. Today, I said hi to a couple, my neighbours. They greeted me with equal enthusiasm. As I reached my building, I see the real couple that I thought I had passed earlier. I said hi. They ignored me." This description gives me the giggles every time I think about it. Last week a friend and I were taking a 6ft-apart walk when we passed someone we know. I have an old grumpy relationship with this party and my friend, a light, cheerful relationship. They greeted each other and in the new confidence of my mask, I felt no pressure to stretch my face into a rictus and keep up the formalities. He didn’t greet me either. We could both pretend we didn’t know who it was under that piece of fabric and wire supposedly protecting us from imminent disaster. Is it the poor-quality fibre of my mask or the poor quality of my moral fibre that as soon as I wear my mask for over 5 minutes I start feeling ill and my throat closes up? Despite the discomfort, I wear it dutifully and am distracted by its possibilities.

These are the kind of possibilities that had been wrecked since social media became the stand-in phrase for the internet, as if nothing lies beyond. It began with Facebook promising everyone’s real identities and how that’s such a good thing because now when anyone sees you they will know it’s you. So now we have a world in which the most agile scamster I have encountered online in recent times was the sad someone who had started a new Facebook account under my name and started friending my friends but had given this Nisha Susan a Harvard and Oxford education. You would think any self-respecting scamster would have more respect for plot and character development. But that’s a story for another time.

As with old-style online identities, people have varying degrees of skill and play with masks. One man in my neighbourhood clearly knows when you are smiling under the mask at him. And he smiles under his mask too. How do I know? His is the Duchenne smile.

In the 1860s, French anatomist Guillaume-Benjamin-Amand Duchenne de Boulogne used electrical stimulation on his test subjects and photographed them to understand facial movement and emotions. He concluded that only in what he called the real “smile of joy" did the muscles on the side of your eyes contract—for you can force your mouth to smile, but not your eyes. He supposedly said the inertia of the muscle around the eye “in smiling unmasks a false friend". Aha! I thought. But then I remembered that the grumpy man I was hoping hadn’t recognized me, was actually not wearing a mask when I saw him. I had just imagined it, much like I imagine his vices. So if he recognized me, he would have known that I would have known him. Oh here be dragons!

I understand that this new masquerade is a brief respite of intrigue and suspense. And not just because surveillance apps are climbing into all our orifices. Already, in Kottayam, you can swiftly print a mask with a photograph of the lower half of your face, the part that would be covered. The inventor and owner of Beena Studios, Binesh G. Paul, told a Malayalam TV channel that he was glad because “now when people see me they know it’s me". Where have we heard that before? Oh yeah, on social media, where people are who they say they are.

Cheap Thrills is a fortnightly column about millennials, obsessions and secrets. Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger.

Twitter - @chasingiamb

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