My Screen Name, Myself: Identity Online and IRL
As you (may) know, I’ve spent a lot of time the past few weeks thinking about perfectionism and digital culture. Friend and fellow blogger, Ily, has been feeding my interest in intersections between the two. Weeks’ back, she suggested the possibility that maintaining an online “persona” can be an act of perfectionism. More recently, she asked, “Why is being on the internet so much more pleasant than any other use of my time?” Her question hit at the heart of something I experienced in my week off social media: I noticed pretty early on that, as much as I missed my online friends and their writings, I also missed “myself” — a version of myself I tap into online. Ily’s question about why the Internet is more pleasant than reality blurred into questions of my own. Namely: how am I different online than IRL? And do I prefer who I am in persona to who I am in person?
The question (in part because I am working on a new spoken-word piece; #edgeofyourseats) reminded me of conversations I’ve had about my slam poetry. I remember talking, for instance, about the difference between my voice in those poems and my voice in other interactions. When I started writing spoken-word, there was a gulf between the strong, confident tone I managed in performance and the petrified people-pleaser who used my voice elswhere. Part of what I loved about the genre, from the beginning, is that it brought out that level of voice– and the more I recorded, the more I inhabited that version of myself full-time. The more practice I got in poems, the more often I stepped into that voice elsewhere.
I’ve had a similar experience with the Internet as a whole. Who I can “be” here — geeky, passionate, activisty, brave — teaches me that I am (and am capable of being) someone I don’t always identify as elsewhere. But Ily’s comment about the online persona got me thinking. On my “bad days,” part of what pisses me off is that I quit feeling like the strong/ brave/ smart/ powerful person I enjoy being — and start feeling like the crazy/ weak/ isolated girl for whom I have little praise.
The hitch, or course, is those are both actually me. I write, think, kickstart, laugh — and I also flake. I’m smart, dorky, friendly — and I’m also nuts. Part of the appeal of being online is that, for the most part, I can choose which of these traits are visible. If I’m feeling awesomesauce, I can update and tweet and post in reflection of said awesomesaucity. If I’m curled up into a ball somewhere or having a panic attack, I can just fade out for awhile — come back when the me I like, the me I want you to know — has returned. My life can be a TV episode, edited down to the parts I expect will entertain you– and free of everything else that happens during my week.
This is part of the appeal, but it’s also part of the problem. I can edit those parts of myself out of my online relationships, maybe even edit them out of my relationships IRL, but I can’t edit them out of my experience. Which means the parts of my life I’m most alone with are the parts I least enjoy.
It’s one thing to create a new identity to improve your experience of your life, the way I’ve done (in part) through slam. It’s another to manage your identity because you think some parts of who you are have no place in that life. In the hospital, struggling with this same tendency to manage how I’m seen, I got an assignment to make 2 masks: one to show the face I present to people, the other to show the face I don’t want them to see. The faces weren’t me and not me, so much as my self-proclaimed “good” and “bad” selves. But if the “bad” parts were so difficult to manage, didn’t I need my strengths there, more than anywhere?
I’ve gained an ability over the past few years to be deliberately transparent about certain struggles. When I’m comfortable speaking openly about the Crazy — or any other “touchy” part of my experience, I feel like it can be a powerful advocacy tool, a way of dismantling stigma.* But usually, when the Crazy (or some subtler “wrong”) attacks, activism is not on my radar, — or it’s on my radar only as something “this me” cannot do. I don’t share these experiences while I experience them; I share them in epilogue, from the safe distance of the past tense. I talk about weeping after I’ve wept, panicking after I’ve calmed. It’s hard to imagine tweeting avoidiance, vlogging panic, or facebooking insecurity in the midst of it. But maybe that’s what’s necessary. Maybe we need to bring our sores and shames, our fails and flaws, out into the open in the moment. Maybe we need to make fewer edits and more mistakes.
Granted, I say that while making significant revisions to this very blog post. Still, the point remains: silence breeds shame. It’s often difficult to differentiate between what’s clandestine and what’s closeted. We’re told privacy is irrelevant — even non-existent — in a digiculture. Yet, most of us still manage our online identities. To borrow from Evelyn Evelyn — I still tend to want control over the way my friends, followers, and readers see my face — and most of them/ you seem to tend toward wanting that as well. So, maybe — even as we discuss how easily we share online and the risks inherent in that sharing, we need to begin paying similar, rigorous attention to what we keep private — and whether we taper ourselves down online or risk inhabiting our full, unbridled (cyber)space.
*As always, when I stumble onto this topic, I want to point out that “transparency” must be the choice of the person practicing it, who must retain full rights to quit practicing it at any time. It can be incredibly difficult to manage that kind of openness and the responses to it. Plus, transparency puts the burden to dismantle stigma on the people directly suffering from it. So, while I’ve had great experience with it, I want to be clear that it’s one weapon in an arsenal, and not a solution that we can (or should) mandate for all people at all times.