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More On the Ethics of Fiction in the Wake of Gay Girl In Damascus

After writing yesterday’s post about Gay Girl In Damascus and vague boundary between creating fiction that’s consumed as such and carrying out a hoax, I emailed Andrea Phillips, the pervasive media artist whose SXSW talk I mentioned, and asked her where we can draw the line and say what practices of fiction are unethical. She wrote back:

I guess if I absolutely had to draw a line between fiction and reality, it would deal with the point in a fiction where your character forms a relationship with your audience. It’s one thing to use a blog as a format for serial fiction. It’s even OK, I think, to use a blog for serial fiction and not specifically mark it out as such. But it becomes something much more questionable when the fiction becomes personalized — when the fictional character is responding to Tweets and emails, for example. That’s the danger zone.

At that point, you have to ask yourself how the people you’re relating to would feel if the truth came out. Would they feel betrayed? If the answer is yes, then you should seriously reconsider what you’re doing and how you’re going about it.

But at the same time… people often experiment with wildly different personas on the internet, and make friendships in those varyingpersonas, and this can be a valuable way to learn about yourself. Identity is a very fluid thing to begin with. I’m not the same person with my colleagues as I am with the other moms at school, you know? So I hate to draw any absolute lines, because every circumstance is unique.

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Think about if the Gay Girl in Damascus situation was reversed: Amina was the real one but Tom was fictional, and he was her way of speakingwith the advantage of privilege, of being heard and listened to. Would we be reacting differently if the power dynamics shifted like that? Iseriously think we would.

I suggested that maybe we cross the line when a character asks readers to do something they wouldn’t do if they knew the character was a creation rather than a real person, whether it’s sending pictures or asking for help springing them from a Syrian prison. I’ve had pretty hilarious Twitter conversations with accounts set up in the voices of Game of Thrones characters, and it sure didn’t hurt me. But then, I was enjoying engaging with the fiction, rather than being deceived by it. There’s a level of safety in detachment.