by Laurie K.
For good or for ill, the way we interact online has undergone a profound change in the last few years and I find myself wondering how this old dog can adapt to these new tricks.
Back in the day (circa 1994), I was sitting in the computer lab at the local college waiting for symphony practice to begin. There was a two hour gap between my last class and my first rehearsal so I would chill in the lab playing some solitaire. I'd notice the same gal sitting in the lab every single time I went in there. She was a heavy African-American girl, with big glasses and dressed down in sweats and a t-shirt. A friend told me she would come in when the lab opened and leave when it closed every day. I was super curious and I took a peek at her screen once when she got up to go to the ladies room. She was engaged in some serious sex chat with multiple guys in multiple screens. One exchange jumped out at me:
|I am Holly Madison on the Internet|
Guy: "What do you look like?"
Girl: "I'm blonde, 5'10", 125 pounds."
Guy: "That's so fucking sexy."
This was so far from true that I was shocked. But I realized from that exchange that you could be whoever you chose to be online and for some people, that was incredibly freeing. (And, you know, incredibly sad - but I didn't figure that part out until later.)
This peeking session colored everything I did online for the next 15 years or so. Never to the extreme that the aforementioned girl did (and never for that purpose) but I was always hyper-conscious of building the brand, the character, the persona that was the digital representation of my physical self. When I was Orb on a game called The Forest's Edge, every action I took as that character fed into building authority and influence for that character. When I moved to becoming Masuri on EverQuest, every action I took, every word I said, every friend I made (or didn't make) was weighted toward building the desired outcome. Nothing that I did strayed very far from who I really was, but at no time was I ever thinking as Laurie. I was busily building my brand.
If this sounds constricting, that's because it was. But the flip side of that careful branding is that it's very easy to walk away from those personas. When I left The Forest's Edge, I simply abandoned the construct that was Orb. When I left EverQuest, I left all of the attributes and contacts of Masuri behind. None of those things were actually me - they were the facets of me that were built for public consumption in the context of that online community, nothing more.
These days, everything online wants you to login with your Facebook account, and Facebook wants you to be the most authentic you that you can possibly be. If Zuckerberg had his way, he'd chronicle every moment of your life from birth to death on Facebook. Can you imagine how horrifying such a thing is for someone like me? I spent the better part of the last 15 years not being me online, showing only the carefully crafted, meticulously branded pieces of me and now some dude wants me to post my entire life and every thought out there? And everyone is doing it. The horror.
I've found myself to be fundamentally unable to do this newfangled Internet interaction. I can't post pictures of myself. I can't talk about everywhere I go. I can't update my relationship status. I just... can't do those things. Those things all you modern internet users do? I can't bring myself to do that. It feels very revealing and strange and uncomfortable.
One of the reasons for this discomfort with the reality of today's Internet is that I think I've concentrated too much on the virtual branding and not enough on the actual me. My personal trainer, Krista, was asking me about my goals and what was important to me and I realized that I think in terms of work or other endeavors, and never anything personal. It occurs to me that maybe I've been branding myself for so long that the actual me has kind of fallen by the wayside.
I know there are a lot of old school nerds who've been having these growing pains. The idea that the real you is what everyone wants to see is frankly unnerving after so many years of doing just the opposite. Maybe it's actually healthier that the real you is the person you present to the world. It encourages you to think about actually bettering yourself rather than bettering the brand that represents you. I'm trying to sell that interpretation to myself so that I freak out less when I try to be just... me. So far, so good.