We all fake it sometimes. Didn't see a movie? You'll still probably nod if asked about it. Listening to someone rant about a new release? You might just react to what they're saying or go off of the single. I believe every word I write, but ask me about anything in person and I might stray to keep from repeating myself. There's no great sin in convincing yourself, for a few seconds, that you know what's going on even when you don't.
Faking it isn't malicious, it's just kind of there, saving everyone a lot of awkwardness and inconvenience. Otherwise, the bottom would drop out of conversations, mutual respect would be shattered and both sides would be left wondering how deep the chasm really went. Faking it isn't the same thing as fake. Fake is an abyss, the total absence of credibility or taste. Faking it protects us from that slippery slope when we know we don't deserve it. If anything, it's a way to preserve and protect who we really are.
I'm going to assume it's always been this way, since there's no polite way to call someone on their shit or plead total ignorance in the middle of conversation. These are unwelcome, awkward ruptures, like that friend who can't help but be bluntly honest at all times. Faking it lasts a second, then it's gone. There are no victims and if anything, it's protecting everyone's best interests.
The story of faking it takes a dramatic turn, though, when you stir in the Internet. The web allows us, in real time, to not only think we know something, but to actually know it. A quick, discreet search means that suddenly, you have heard that song. You have seen, in the most literal sense, that movie. Chatting or messaging, it's practically second nature—some folks can even pull it off IRL like a magic trick.
The tricky part is that, when we fake it in a pre-digital way, the experience is fleeting. Two seconds later, we may even feel guilt. The new way we fake it is more complicated. If we want, we can march forward in life like we were telling the truth. It's not even a lie anymore, more just insincere. But if we carry it past that moment, it becomes a part of us. The longer it hangs around, and the more of this ersatz knowledge we accumulate, the closer we are to being polluted—to actually being fake.
In a way, all this is an improvement over the way the web used to be. Back in the dial-up era, things were practically built for lying. All we had were text-only interfaces that could only approximate real-time. The web was an imaginary place, where words spoke for themselves and the promise of virtual reality was never far from anyone's mind. We were encouraged to pretend, and then given no real way of discerning when something was true. Anything was possible, at least for a few seconds.
If anything, the Internet today is too much like real life. The two have practically merged. The web doesn't provide an alternative to what we know—it works in tandem with IRL. Things don't appear out of thin air. They're assembled out of bits and pieces of IRL and then thrust back into the world for us to deal with. Nothing is born Big Bang-like out of the Internet and nothing stays Internet-only for long. We've come out of that hole. We now hide in plain sight.
Is your life the Internet or is the Internet your life?
No one exploits a shortage of evidence or facts. Instead, we use the glut of it to our advantage in creative ways. The Internet first appeared as something to hide behind. Now the tools have changed, but it's still thought of as a presentation, a production. There's just a lot more work to do. We show more without necessary revealing a thing. And that's where things get slippery. That's why it's not enough to fake it anymore. The silent agreement is breaking down. We're expected to know everything and to be playing constant, private catch up. After all, we have the tools to do so.
The problem is, that shit will catch up with you. Because as the web and IRL converge, these choices are more real. Our online selves are more carefully curated, less vulnerable versions of ourselves. They're way more impressive than we could ever be in person. But they're still us. And that's the difference between today and ten years ago.
There's no way to compartmentalize the digital fake. If you say shit online, you need to be able to back it up. You might have the conversation again in person. You might get work based on something you said. A media outlet might cite your tweet. There's just not the same separation—the same kind of anonymity—there used to be. We don't use the web to hide in the same way. It's a buffer, not a barrier. Internet fibs circa 1998 have more in common with faking it than they do the way the web tempts us now.
More than ever, faking it is a gray area that never really starts and never really stops. Is your life the Internet or is the Internet your life? That decision is the only thing that keeps us honest. Whereas before we could rely on other people to play along, we're now out there, all alone, with only our conscience to guide us. Where's that line? And when have you crossed it? Worst of all, no one talks about this shit. Instead of a civil agreement to not make fools of each other, we're silent about an arms race that feeds the central lie of the Internet: That we should know more than ever before.
The Internet expects us to prove ourselves on an obscenely regular basis. It also expects us to be in a constant state of absorbing information. The good news flows into and out of us so fast that it's like we never really learn anything. We are everything, all the time, papering over any blind spots with a quick search or well-paced evasion. The very idea of knowing or not knowing something has become irrelevant.
And yet we do want to preserve some idea of what is ours and what is not; what kind of thing we are aware of and what is best left to someone else. Faking it was a means of keeping our borders safe, of letting us stay safe in our identity. The Internet tempts us to go too far, to spread ourselves thin by trying to be too much. That's when we know we've gone too far. That's the new morality of faking it since lord knows we need one, if nothing else, so we don't get bogged down in self-doubt.
I tend to think of it like a credit card. You can borrow time, truth and credibility online. But the work is making sure you can back it up IRL. That's paying your bill on time. It's not an ideal way to live, but we all do it. The alternative? You're swimming in debt, compromised to the very core of your being. And, at that point, you might do well to go ahead and concoct an entirely new identity to begin with.
Bethlehem Shoals is a writer living in Portland. You can follow him on Twitter here.