Saturday, January 25, 2014

Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall...

Not just an empty suit
Will Wilkinson writes:
A personal blog, a blog that is really your own, and not a channel of the The Daily Beast or Forbes or The Washington Post or what have you, is an iterated game with the purity of non-commercial social intercourse. The difference between hanging out and getting paid to hang out. Anyway, in old-school blogging, you put things out there, broadcast bits of your mind. You just give it away and in return maybe you get some attention, which is nice, and some gratitude, which is even nicer. The real return, though, is in the conclusions people draw about you based on what you have said, about what what you have said says about you, about what it means relative to what you used to say. People form expectations about you. They start to imagine a character of you, start to write a little story about you. Some of this is validating, some is irritating, and some is downright hateful. In any case it all contributes to self-definition, helps the blogger locate and comprehend himself as a node in the social world.

I am not The Epicurean Dealmaker.

It is worth reminding you periodically of this, O Dearly Beloved, because as Mr. Wilkinson notes the persona to which you ascribe the words you so faithfully read on this site does not exist. For that matter, the persona you ascribe to Will Wilkinson—“Will Wilkinson”—does not exist, either. It is a construct, formed partially out of the meaning, motivation, and character you impute to the words he writes and the actions and interactions he pursues on the internet among an audience of people who are personal strangers to him. He sketches the outline of his character with words, and he and his readers fill the picture in. Whether the creation of an online persona is a primary motivation for personal blogging, as Mr. Wilkinson maintains, or simply a (hopefully) beneficial side product thereof is not really my concern. But everybody does it.

Some of the motivations behind this character creation are the same or similar for everyone who blogs: we want our online persona to appear smarter, funnier, wiser, better-read, and more articulate than we are in real life. Some of them are more unique to my own situation and adopted persona: I want to appear richer, more powerful, better connected, more successful, more handsome, and more wicked here than I am in actuality. In any event, these exaggerations or deceptions add up—we hope—to create an online “self” that is more compelling and admirable than our own and in whose reflected glory we can bask our gratified egos. We tell ourselves that yes, my online self is the real me, me as I want others to see me, minus all those embarrassing, incidental flaws and imperfections which do not define me as I would be seen. As I want to be. As I really am.

Of course this is nothing new. People have been trying to manage their social identity ever since we crawled out of the muck to the first backyard Mastodon barbecue. The distinction between private and public personae has existed as long as there has been a public sphere to create the latter; as long as we have interacted repeatedly with a relatively stable group of other human beings. Masks and pseudonyms have existed as long as we have had society, too, even if it is just Grog posing as “Grog” or Joe Smith posing as “Joe Smith.” For most people, their masks fit their faces pretty well and look pretty much like their true selves. But masks they still are. Our interior selves are too mutable, ephemeral, and contingent to make even the most transparent person match his or her public persona consistently and coherently. Our public selves are costumes we don to interact with friends, family, and strangers so they know whom they’re dealing with. Perhaps we don these costumes to remind ourselves who we are supposed to be and how we are supposed to act, too.

Fredrik deBoer is correct to note that blogging has not democratized expertise or authority. But blogging—and, frankly, all the different flavors of social media—has democratized our ability to create, control, and broadcast our online social personae to a much greater extent than ever before. In the past, the non-famous among us moved in relatively small private and public communities, defined and limited by extended families, current and past friends, and work and social acquaintances. Our masks fit tightly to ourselves, because they had to: everybody who knew us knew us too well, for too long, for us to fool them into thinking we were someone we were not. The exceptions were limited to those who literally cut themselves off or hid their true natures from society: the criminal, the loner, the “deviant,” the mentally ill. Creating public personae out of whole cloth was limited to those public figures who had access to a platform to broadcast their creations to the wider society of strangers: books, newspapers, podiums, movie cameras, and the like.

Now, any old obscure investment banker with a case of scotch and a laptop can create, cultivate, and grow an online character which, thanks to forces completely outside his control, becomes widely known among thousands of strangers and takes on the force of reality for private and public persons alike. In less egregiously fictional and more subtle fashion, so can a real person like Will Wilkinson or Freddie deBoer manufacture, through the simple act of publishing their words and participating in online discussions, a more perfect, coherent, and clear simulacrum of himself. These simulacra become known as “Will Wilkinson” and “Freddie deBoer” to tens of thousands of strangers who have not and likely never will meet the authors and therefore will never learn how they differ from the originals.

* * *

What I find interesting in all this is the irrefutable fact that my pseudonymous online persona, which matches but does not match my true personality and situation, has become far more widely known than I am in real life. This creates some odd juxtapositions for me, and the occasional disorienting feeling that my Frankenstein monster has taken on a life and a will of its own. The reasons I created TED in the first place still obtain, and I do not anticipate revealing my true identity anytime soon. But it is occasionally disconcerting and humbling to realize that were I to do so, the overwhelming reaction among You Dear Readers would likely be disappointment and regret.

I suppose that is reason enough to continue this charade. It is always wise to remember you are less interesting, intelligent, and entertaining than you would like to be. The funhouse mirror which is this website reminds me of that every day.
The person who experiences greatness1 must have a feeling for the myth he is in. He must reflect what is projected upon him. And he must have a strong sense of the sardonic. This is what uncouples him from belief in his own pretensions. The sardonic is all that permits him to move within himself. Without this quality, even occasional greatness will destroy a man.

— Frank Herbert, Dune

Related reading:
Skin in Which Game? (February 10, 2013)
Fragments (February 26, 2010)

1 Or, shall we say, episodically impressive pageviews.

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