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Internet Offers Twist on Fictional Motif of Disguise

Despite an atmosphere of increased security and monitoring technology, it's never been easier to assume another identity -- at least, for a little while. Filmmakers and writers are finding fodder in the modern ability to easily diguise oneself online.

Pretending to be someone you're not is a time-tested plot device -- Shakespeare certainly knew it -- and several films in the past few years have featured chat rooms as crucial plot elements. One of the offbeat relationships in 2005's Me and You and Everyone We Know begins when a 14-year-old boy and and his 7-year-old brother start up a conversation online.

The younger brother eventually develops a virtual relationship with the adult on the other side of that chat -- one that might be considered inappropriate, yet turns out to be sweetly revealing about both people.

Cultural critic Annalee Newitz believes chat rooms and other forms of faceless communication tap into an American tradition: The belief that it is possible to move to a place where no one knows you, and start all over.

Newitz says it's a literary tradition that goes back to Ben Franklin's autobiography: "[Franklin] is famous for having shown up with [almost nothing] in his pocket in Philadelphia and [going] from there to being one of the most influential figures of his time. So I think that's part of our myth ... that we should be able to pass through a phase of anonymity and into a new selfhood."

However, the idea of becoming someone else and starting over goes back even further than Ben Franklin in Western literature. Shakespeare's women often cross dressed as men, and sometimes noblemen became servants.

Other recent films, such as The Dying Gaul, Closer and Hard Candy also have dark twists on Internet communication.

William Gibson, author of the best-selling novel Neuromancer, has little doubt that this new form of social interaction is going to be the source of inspiration for all kinds of dramas -- real and imagined.

"I do think that this has changed our lives in some profound way," he says. "But part of our job as artists is ... to guess how we've been changed, because I don't believe we can directly know, once it's happened to us."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: August 7, 2006 at 3:26 PM EDT
The line of dialogue cited from 'Twelfth Night' in this story is spoken by the character Viola, not Olivia.
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Laura Sydell fell in love with the intimate storytelling qualities of radio, which combined her passion for theatre and writing with her addiction to news. Over her career she has covered politics, arts, media, religion, and entrepreneurship. Currently Sydell is the Digital Culture Correspondent for NPR's All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, and NPR.org.