The LARPing Never Ends
Our online profiles will eventually become who we are — for better or worse
If you find it difficult now to tell where the sprawling tentacles of the QAnon/5G/anti-vaccine conspiracy theories end and support for Donald Trump — and the erroneous claims of election fraud — begin, you’re not alone. More and more, it seems there is no separating them. The two camps, if they ever really were distinct, have bled together. If the Q posters and t-shirts at Trump events weren’t enough, then the list of those arrested for their roles in the break-in at the Capitol on January 6 make the point.
One way to explain the sprawling Q-Trump delusional universe that caught on in 2020, following a series of anti-lockdown/mandatory masking protests. It was compared to both alternate reality games, or ARGs, and to live-action role-playing, aka LARPing, where people adopt a character to act out a game whose plot is usually guided by a gamemaster. It might be a bit of both. The ARG analogy is compelling, but the comparison to LARPing that seems to stick best when it comes to the transformation people appear to undergo when they descend down the internet conspiracy rabbit hole.
In short, people undergo a profound change. Reddit’s QAnonCasualties page is where families and friends of Q adherents gather to compare notes about how their friends or family members have followed Q into mental darkness, or essentially grieve someone with whom they’ve had to end all contact. Reading the testimonials, it’s clear that the descent into the Q universe is quick — and quickly all-encompassing. Frequently, it’s They are no longer the same. They become someone else. One day, they’re teaching elementary school, the next they’re invading the Capitol.
How does this happen? Is it the conspiracy that does it — the “tantalizing background lore based on a mystifying blend of fact and fiction, recurrent rabbit holes planted by a mysterious puppetmaster,” as Jon Glover put it last summer? Or is it less the story than it is where the story is told, and the nature of the social internet?
Taking part in online discourse, curating a personal profile, and creating content for a platform requires a kind of separation from oneself. We see ourselves constantly as we believe others might see us — or at least, how we want them to. “This online audience is simultaneously ever-present but elusive,” L.M. Sacasas wrote in 2019 at Real Life magazine. We might post something online, but we can never guarantee an immediate response — it just kind of hangs there, waiting for a reaction. “The result, Sacasas explained, “is that we can’t help but be aware of ourselves through these platforms as continual performers, moment by moment.”
Instead of living a dual existence, we begin to change to more consistently match the expectations of the medium, Sacasas wrote:
To borrow sociologist Erving Goffman’s terminology, broadcasting on social media amounts to a substantial expansion of what he called our “front stage,” where we are consciously and continually involved in the work of impression management. In his metaphor of social life as theater, Goffman presumed the existence of a backstage, where we can let down our guard, but the open-ended communication in time and space on social media expands our front stage, divorcing it from any particular place that we could choose to leave. […] The front stage thus begins to colonize the backstage. Provided you have a connected mobile device, you can always be involved in impression management, even if you find yourself alone. Indeed, we seem to crave the front-stage experience to the degree that we find it difficult to tolerate solitude.
Because so many of us are caught up in this dynamic — the one created by our participation on social platforms — this division of self is inescapable, whether it’s our own or someone else’s. As the world is increasingly mediated by not just the internet, but the social internet, it means that even if you’re not participating, people around you are, and the world you inhabit is therefore being shaped by their online experiences. We become absorbed by the front stage, whether it’s ours or someone else’s. The LARPing eventually takes over.
But how this front stage comes to colonize the backstage, as Sacasas put it, is important: impression management is dictated by engagement. What’s elusive is not so much an audience, but audience reaction, quantified by views, likes, retweets, shares, comments, followers, and so on. These metrics are what drive the backstage to disappear, for the person to become the performance. These metrics are also what we collect, as if in a game — they are tokens we accumulate.
This is where it becomes difficult to point to one subsection of internet users, extreme though they are, as the only ones engaged in LARPing. Essentially, as a user of the social internet — by curating a character for our audience, by collecting the platform’s engagement currency, by trying to “win the internet” as the tired phrase goes — we have each become a character in an elaborate kind of game. And we can never break. The audience is always there, somewhere. Our world, by consequence, has become not so much mediated by social platforms as instead a physical forum for overlapping games and their players to run into, and interrupt, one another.
Most of the time, these interactions are either harmless or just briefly confusing, like hearing an inside joke. In other cases, as with the conspiracy theorists and would-be seditionists, the LARPing clearly takes on a different, more serious and violent form. But even while deeply shocking, it should not have been totally unexpected — and not simply because the mob was all but directed to invade the Capitol by the President. The medium the mob used to learn about the erroneous wrongs they wanted to right, where they talked and planned their gathering, and where they broadcast their invasion naturally drives us to adopt a performance of an increasingly totalizing nature.
As it happens, on the /pol/ board of 4CHan, where Q originated, LARPing meant something a bit different. As Bellingcat explains, on /pol/ LARPing commonly referred to “someone who pretends to be a well-placed source with confidential information about current events,” which they ‘leak’ to other 4Chan users. This is now the archetype every Q follower appears to emulate, this is the character they have become, to some extent or another.
“Cousin’s facebook post started with the news of a Michigan election worker getting arrested (for 2018 election fraud) and now it’s ending with calling for the public execution and hanging of politicians,” one Reddit user posted at the QAnonCasualties forum in December.
For lack of a better way to put it, the social internet inherently presupposes that the world we inhabit is a (front) stage. Once we’ve logged on, it’s only a matter of time before we realize the same. Online social platforms demand that we embody a character, and the longer and more we use them, the more that character becomes us, or we the character. Evidently, in some cases, to the point that both we and the real world that surrounds us — including the institution at the heart of the nation we love — are both totally unrecognizable.