Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Updating My Virtual Life

by Laurie K.

Vintage geek

I'm the resident hardcore computer geek here at Stellar Four. I work with computers. I play with computers. I am an Internet junkie and have been for about 18 years now. In the old days of the Internet, you crafted the persona that you wanted to represent you. It was, in essence, a very careful building of a brand. How did you want to be perceived?  How did you want to phrase things to reflect the image you had crafted? Now, today, in this era of Facebook and FourSquare, that persona you're putting on the internet is you

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.
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16 comments:

  1. I think we're seeing a swinging back of the pendulum on that. Google+ lets you manage what, if anything, you want to share with everyone, and what you want to share with who.

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  2. I had a slightly different experience from yours. Growing up in tiny communities, where everyone was in each other's business, the internet was an opportunity to experiment with who I really am or would really want to be-if a more extroverted version.

    Facebook still presents a problem for me though, as many of the people who never would have found me online, now have their own online presence and an assumption that everyone else does as well. So I have people from those small communities with assumptions about who I am, mixed in with people who know FAR more about my politics, history and personality. Fun times. And also why my facebook account is so sparse.

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  3. Since my internet start over 10 years ago, I have abandoned multiple communities and personas without a backward glance, and have have said dozens and dozens of things that, in hindsight, I either regret, or maybe just think I was being an idiot. My homepage got boiled down to just 5 sentences over the years, and I *still* go on there every six months or so and cringe and can't believe I put suchandsuch on there.

    And that's where much of my horror stems when a friend or coworker tells me I need an online presence. If all of my coworkers have seen me say I'm interested in suchandsuch, six months later when I loathe suchandsuch, how can I change my mind without looking like an idiot? And setting myself up for a scenario where I am doing something I hate because I want to avoid the comments if I stop... That's just loathsome.

    Honestly, I feel like all us with our 90s internet experience and online gaming and such are in a much wiser position than the very people who run to blab on Facebook and don't get why we don't as well.

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  4. @mpkirkland: Yes! Google plus is the place where I feel less like I've shown up for school with my pants down. Facebook is just so... facey and booky with the booking and the faces. I dunno. It's too much.

    @Yveva: Yeah, those insular, small communities led to knowing each other better than you ever really wanted to - and then it's coming into the now and that's waaaay more uncomfortable than we ever realized it could be, back in the day.

    @April: Oh, a world of yes. We have such similar internet backgrounds. It's one of the reasons I ended up writing this article, actually.

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  5. Oh no, I knew how uncomfortable it could be. There's a reason I kept it separate :)

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  6. I've been struggling with that question for about a year now. I used to have lots of online identities, all very separated. I was on Facebook, but that was for old classmates and I was on Twitter, but that was for work colleagues. I had user names for a number of different boards and forums and I was very careful not to let hints of my real identity slip out in those places. But then I started questioning why. What was going to happen if people really knew me? So my work colleagues find out I write fan fiction, so what? Suppose my mom's group discovered I played WOW, what would it matter? I spent a long while wondering what I was afraid of and why I was so reluctant to let people know the real me, and I've since been trying out the more honest approach. So far, realistically, my discovery is that no one cares what I (metaphorically) had for lunch. That said, though, the online misogyny of the 1990s is still alive and well in 2012 and I think there's good reason to be reasonably careful about photos, etc.

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  7. @Lauri: "I can't post pictures of myself."

    So you're not the vintage geek pictured at the top of the page? I felt like I'd been granted access to an inner circle…in front of the entire world.

    I've been on the internet for 20+ years. At first, I picked a dramatic name (phoenix felt good, I may also have toyed with storm), but I was just being me. All me. Then I realised I needed to peel off a polite rules-playing persona for internet stuff related to school. I couldn't be ororo there. They wanted to know why I was weird.

    And…it slowly exploded. Where I stand now, I have five or six not-obviously-related livejournals, a couple blogger sites, two Twitter accounts, four Tumblrs, three main domains (with major lists of email addresses for each). Every one of my eight to ten google email addresses has an important distinction…

    No, I'm not marketing me. I don't want to. There's fannish me, there's dirty me, there's work me, there's "me and my buds!" me, there's artist me, there's writer me, there's net entrepreneur me, there's family-friendly me…and five or seven mes I've just got placeholders for so far.

    One, unvarnished me, expressed where it can never really be deleted where anyone can lurk and look and take notes?

    Life ain't made for that. I'd never say a word. There would be no photos.

    (Man I can't believe I almost typed in one of my URLs when prompted. Shh. No need for you to know. Shh)

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  8. I completely understand.

    For a long time I didn't do any social netwroking".

    When I first posted reviews on Amazon, and joined in on a couple of forums, I just picked a name, never thinking that a few years later I'd still be using it, doing reviews, blogging, all of that. But here I am. To change it now seems silly, like I'd have to have some kind of big announcement.

    Although I do sometimes wish that I'd picked another fake name to use - there's a few other kindle addicts and aholics out there.

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  9. I've been many people online, too. Blogger, knitter, celebrity snarker, serious professor, slightly obsessed X-Files fan. And like Wyndes, I've become less stringent about keeping all of those digital folks separate, so far with no blowback. In part, this is because I live by the motto, "If you wouldn't wear it in a t-shirt, don't put it on Facebook (or Twitter or Blogger or Ravelry)." And in part, it's because I do hold back ... some. I'm not as picture-phobic as Laurie, though. :)

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    Replies
    1. I just don't want you to be shocked when I don't really have blue skin. ;)

      (Oh, hello nested comments. How YOU doin?)

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    2. You ... you don't have blue skin? This online friendship is OVER!

      Delete
  10. I'm trying to jog my memory of an online social life more than 5 years ago. I would have to say that in fact Facebook might have been my first social network. Strike that- MySpace was the first I guess. I never really used either one all that much to begin with, and the latter has since long faded away. The former was important when some life upheaval happened and I needed to reach out, even in a completely superficial/abstract way.

    I suppose I am young enough (wow that sounds weird) to be part of that new wave of persons totally okay with an openly public persona. Though, I'd say I am much more reserved on Facebook than I am as a commenter on io9 or real life. My io9 (& twitter) persona is much closer to the person you get in real life that what appears on Facebook. As much as Facebook is supposed to be the 'real you' or authentic or whatever, it hasn't been for me. It's been the shadow of Kyle, the watered down Kyle. The authentic Kyle from io9/Twitter has been pushing further in to the "authentic" Kyle on FB though. Mostly because I don't give a fuck anymore and haters gonna hate.

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  11. Thinking about this for a bit. There are levels of being yourself; you can present one face to one part of the internet, and another to another, but there's nothing that says you can't allow the two to overlap a little - if someone is content with only knowing who you are in one corner of the world that's cool, but allowing them to connect is ok too; it's like, we're friends who play D&D and that's one part of our lives and we can stay that way, but we can leave the option open to get to know each other better as people who don't play D&D too, who maybe go to movies that have nothing to do with D&D.

    Works the other way too; my family knows who I am to my family but they don't follow me out into the wider internet world, even though they could. It's hard work, I make no secret about who I am online and they *could* track me if they wanted, but since I'm open about it they don't bother. Like leaving a door open for the cat: if it's closed they want to know what's in there, but if it only leads to a lot of stairs and you tell them there's nothing but a lot of boring geeky technical stuff at the end of the stairs, they might never bother.

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  12. Like anything, social networking can be what you make of it. I think that if you're afraid of it's honesty and out thereness, it's going to be about putting yourself out there, but in reality, there are just as many people branding themselves on facebook and blogs and twitter today as there were ten or fifteen years ago. They limit their information, edit it, polish it up prettily, or ensure that it only goes out tho this or that audience. There are very few individuals who are representing themselves in a genuine manner, and even those retain a large part of their lives as private and personal.

    You have to find what works for you and what doesn't and remember that online, just like in real life, it's not about what anyone else sees or thinks or comments on. There is a lot more judgement online, but it's the same game.

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  13. RAMBLE MODE ON

    People have always created different personas for different audiences. You can actually see this in people you are close to, for example a spousal unit. Is my "Chip Overclock" persona, which I created years ago specifically as a kind of "internet branding" just as you describe, that different from me? Somewhat ironically, I'm not in a position to say. I'm not even sure it's meaningful to say that my internet persona is any less or more real than, say, my work persona, my friend persona, or the persona that my spousal unit sees. It's a bit of the Chinese Room phenomena, except even the sense of self that lives inside my head isn't sure whether it's real or just another simulation fronting something deeper inside. Our reptilian brains are all sociopathic. Fortunately our kinder gentler forebrains keep it in check. I am always encouraging SF fans to meet in meatspace: locally, conventions, what not. Everyone, fan or not, lives somewhere on the autism spectrum, and on the orthogonal introversion-extroversion scale. But meeting in meatspace, having real conversations, reading facial cues and body language, sharing a meal, these are good things for you no matter where you are on the graph, because also deep deep down we are social animals. And being social is good for us. No matter what persona we drag out for those occasions. Interacting on the internet isn't the same thing at all. And it can be a tragic waste of cognitive bandwidth when we could be using that capacity to create, to innovate, to wonder, to analyze, to ponder, to converse. It's a kind of addition really, tickling the part of our brains that make us feel good while achieving nothing real. Like "increasing stockholder value".

    RAMBLE MODE OFF

    Huh. Wonder what that was all about.

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  14. I actually don't think this is odd, or different, than what we do in life. I mean we all build our "brand." To your grandparents you are the darling little grandkid. To your parents the perfect son or daughter, or maybe the one they wring their hands over. You have good friends and people you associate with. No one knows every aspect of you or else some of these people would not be your friends. "We all have people we go! Oh how nice to see you again! what have you been up to?" while thinking.. damnit! How come no one has hit this @$#$% with a truck yet?

    Those glimpses of our personality, or shades are all our brands. To sit there and even say we know the _real_ us takes a deeper sense of thought and quite frankly i don't know if we can even get through to ourselves. I mean being honest with yourself is easy for some subjects and hard for others. It is hard to break yourself down to a flawed individual.

    So why would it be different online? I have my online presense. I guess that online presence is a brand, because sometimes they say things online that I wouldn't say irl. Even if the person online is under by real name on facebook. The internet has not only bred anominity, but it has made us not care as much about what is out there because there is so much out there. Google and searches and other things have made pieces of us available.. all you can do is control the data a little. And what is worse? You might keep your nose clean but there might be another person out there by the same name who does not. Employers don't care and you will never know. They won't even tell you. If someone posts vile, racist, crap with a name like mine.. I'm toast.

    So with the birth of the internet you have a brand, but the concept that you can make a brand that is squeaky clean could be pointless.

    At the time I created my brand on the internet, after a few years I liked the brand enough I adapted myself more to my brand than the other way around. It was no longer "It want to portray myself this way" on the net.. it was more, I like the net person I made more than I like my wishy washy self.. why don't I try to be more like I sound on there.

    Frankly, the only flack I got for it was a guy telling me.. the way I run my mouth he thought I'd be "taller." ;)

    I think brand building is something you do to corner an audience. And eventually people watching don't care so much for it anymore.

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