Behind the digital mask

by Tom Albrighton 21 January 2011 Digital and social, Popular

‘I’m too much with myself.
I wanna be someone else.’
Lyrics to ‘My Drug Buddy’, by Evan Dando

Have you heard about the site about.me? Have you signed up? It’s a brilliantly basic idea – put together a simple, nicely designed page all about yourself, with links to your various online presences (Twitter, LinkedIn, Flickr etc). You can see my page (a work in progress) here.

About.me appeals to your inner narcissist. The format of your page invites (indeed, requires) you to use a whopping ‘hero’ image of yourself as a background. (You really need a professional shot for best results.) As the name suggests, it really is all about you. A shrine to the self.

For people in or around digital media, particularly freelances and consultants, this sort of rampant self-promotion seems to have become the norm. Investing significant time and money into your online branding, which still seems faintly self-indulgent to me, is completely natural to younger generations. It’s become part of ‘marketing yourself’ and ‘developing a personal brand’.

Remake yourself

When I arrived at university, a fellow fresher confidently proclaimed that ‘everyone’ called him Cinderella, or Cinders for short. (He was into heavy rock and had a Brian May hairstyle.) A few weeks later, his brother visited. Turned out he’d never heard the nickname before. Cinders, whose real name was Phil or Alan or something, had realised that different contexts offer the perfect chance to refresh your personal brand.

About.me had yet to be invented, so Narcissus made do with his garden pond

The digital world is just the same. It lets you define or refine your own character, creating a sort of semi-fictionalised version of yourself for public consumption.

Better than reality

When I hook up with people I’ve met on Twitter, I’m sometimes struck by the differences between their social-media persona and their actual character. Specifically, it seems that some people downplay their melancholic or cynical sides on Twitter, much as you would at a party or social gathering. Others seem to go out of their way to be more in-your-face than they really are, perhaps as means of self-protection.

I asked my Twitter followers if there were any differences between their online and offline personae, and received a range of answers (not all of them serious, naturally):

@regtubby many years of difference but beginning to see convergence. I doubt they’ll ever be the same. The real me rarely appears online.

@AndyDBryant Try to keep it the same, although that’s contradictory given I willingly hide behind a cartoon character profile pic :/

@wordetc I think before I tweet. Unfortunately the same can’t be said for when I speak!

@timcaynes my online personality gets out more

@eph_bee it used to be, especially as a teen… the advent of twitter changed that a lot – much more similar now.

@shakirah_dawud I keep certain things back as a professional. No more than I would in office, tho, so I guess I’m about the same all round.

@norwichmag We definitely swear less when tweeting, which is a good habit to get into.

@NexusWords Not different, just narrowed. Filtering ensures all is business-friendly, but I think keeping my humour (albeit PG) is important!

@Mr603 Not discernibly. I’m snarky, sarcastic and faux-authoritative offline too. Although I spend less time courting potential links;)

Papering over the cracks

Can online persona compensate for character flaws?

It’s certainly possible to build a business even if you lack confidence in some areas – witness my own well-documented aversion to networking. I’ve been amazed by the insecurities held by some of my clients, even after they’ve made millions. Online presences afford the opportunity to paper over such cracks and present a flawless personal image to the world.

Leading copywriter Mike Reed (@reedwords) shared sentiments very close to my own:

After 17 years in the business I’m just starting to get to grips with the idea of introducing myself to people at events.

I’m naturally a shy person, although I’ve grown out of the absolutely painful shyness I had as a youngster/teenager. But I am good with words, given the time to think them through.

This is why I love email – unlike the phone, one can organise and refine one’s thoughts before communicating them. Likewise, online I can come across as far more confident/nonchalant/snappy than I ever am in person, because I have a facility for written language.

I’m likely to be a bit mouthier online than I am in person, because I’m not faced with a real human being who I’m concerned about offending.

People sometimes bring up things I’ve written online, and I almost cringe at how bold I was… But this is good – it pushes me into being more confident in the flesh, into having the courage of my convictions and speaking up.

Mike paints a picture of a medium with very different rules from face-to-face interaction – but one that opens up some new opportunities and ways of being. Which can only be good.

A little Tweet infamy

Film-maker and marketing pro Matthew Carrozo (@carrozo), who I think could fairly be described as a ‘Twitter personality’, also sent me some interesting perspectives.

[My Twitter persona] is very much an extension of who I am, but far more of a personal caricature than who I “really” am.

I can tell stories, rise above my station and be very verbose or very cutting.  It’s a desire to share what I’m already thinking… with a greater digital hive mind… It’s also a desire to gain attention and adulation from strangers. That’s the artist in me.

Twitter in particular is a stage for performance… Some post under pseudonyms to say all sorts of ludicrous, libellous and lame things, like a comedian doing an act “in character”, which gives all sorts of freedoms… Others are obsessed with “personal branding” and struggle to gain headway with happy-go-lucky, sycophantic and self-censored content in attempt to please everyone, which of course appeals to no one.

All the people I admire and respect in the public eye step out of line to make comments that go against the status quo… fascinating people say weird, wonderful and offensive things that make us think a little differently about long-held assumptions. To stand out, to be counted in the age of the individual, you do have to say things that stand out.

Matthew’s view of Twitter is a forum where bland, me-too content won’t deliver any outcomes – perhaps not even the humble ambition to be liked. To succeed, at whatever level, we have to amp it up a bit.

I can certainly relate to what he’s saying. Since I began using Twitter, I’ve started to look at a lot of my experience through the lens of 140-character updates – asking myself, in very many situations, ‘could I tweet about this?’ But I only do so if I can make the event funny or memorable somehow – that is, if I can make it worthy of my online self.

Pointless inflation

I haven’t deliberately set out to create a false online persona. But it’s kind of happened anyway. Because I enjoy writing, blogging and coding, I’ve developed this site way beyond what’s really required for a sole trader. It’s become a monster. (The only possible justification is SEO.)

Before Christmas I was contacted by a major – and I do mean major – multinational brand, seeking tone of voice training. Unfortunately, I’ve never really done any genuine tone of voice work – all I’ve done is write a few blog posts about my ideas on tone of voice. And that wasn’t a one-off – I’m often contacted by people who think ABC is a 50-person company.

The reality, as my real-world acquaintances know, is rather more humble: one rather tired guy, pushing 40, receding hair, typing away in a spare room. With a green carpet. With a hole in it. (Sorry for spoiling your mental image of me as a thrusting, dynamic young webpreneur.)

It’s flattering that people think I’m bigger and better than I am, but it isn’t really a whole lot of use. I’ll never be able to convert big-name prospects – not for a few years yet, anyway. In strict business terms, dealing with such enquiries is a complete waste of time, and rather depressing to boot. So is there really any point in inflating your online brand if it makes you look ‘too good’, or better than reality?

Me, myself and I

It seems there are lots of reasons why people make their online personae different from their real selves. For some, it’s just about professional courtesy and a ‘work’ tone of voice. For others, it’s about being someone online that they perhaps can’t be in person. And some feel that an exaggerated or provocative stance is essential to cut through the noise.

For my part, I’m becoming a little uneasy about the way the ‘online me’ is developing. Sometimes I think he might be hogging too much of my attention; soaking up precious cognitive resource. Sometimes I worry that he’s too self-regarding, too mercenary, too cynical.  Sometimes I despair that he’s just not funny, creative or popular enough. And some days, I just don’t like him that much. Perhaps we need a little time apart…

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  • http://www.writecombination.com Andrew Knowles

    I’ve lost count of the number of tweets I’ve written and then deleted because I’ve questioned their impact on my online image.

    More fundamentally, as a relative newcomer to freelancing I’m still grappling with which perspective on myself could be the most attractive to potential customers. And then questioning how much it really matters.

  • http://www.unmemorabletitle.co.uk Andy Nattan

    I think part of the issue with the online persona is he can be an almost idealised portrayal of yourself – the smug success you want to be as opposed to the grafter that you currently are.

    But the hard thing is that to be honest with your online identity, you need to be honest with yourself. And who wants to do that?

  • Angela

    Up there at the top of your website there’s a link reading “About Us” — why wouldn’t a big company assume your business was bigger than one guy with his holey carpet? ;-)

  • http://www.marketcopywriterblog.com Lorraine

    Thanks for thoughtfully and intelligently parsing this thorny issue.

    Our online brand or persona is not so different from the self we present in real life: It varies. Depending on whether we’re attending a rock concert, networking at a (hated) business event, trying to impress an admissions’ officer at our kid’s school or having a glass of wine with a friend, we dress, speak and act differently.

    Let’s face it, the world is discriminatory–on the basis of gender, age, appearance and more. One hundred percent transparency–a standard that some cussing, confessional-style bloggers hold as ideal–can be disadvantageous for some of us. Why set ourselves up to be judged on personal issues when we’re trying to market ourselves as professionals?

    On the other hand,like you, I dread seeming phony. So it’s a tricky juggle presenting one’s “best” self, maintaining some privacy yet being personable, real and “human.”

    Regarding your self-assessment: I think you underestimate yourself, Tom. A lot of people might have bluffed their way through the Big Brand’s request for tone-of-voice training. Though you may not have a track record of teaching this subject, you are smart, authoritative and hard working. You could have pulled this off, IMHO.

  • http://michaelforeman.net Michael Foreman

    You know, it’s interesting…My Facebook biz page hasn’t changed much since it went up and the tone is pretty cautious, professional.

    My Twitter feed, on the other hand, is older and didn’t begin as a biz feed. It slowly morphed from wise-ass to more restrained. Even now it has a bit more voice than the FB page…not sure why. And I did have to go back to delete some potentially offensive tweets and RTs. (I can’t RT most of @malecopywriter anymore…sigh.) Why didn’t I start a separate profile? Just didn’t want to spend that much time on Twitter.

    My blog’s probably a mix of the two with a little cover letter thrown in for good measure. So I guess there are three of me out there and one of me at home…*pondering*

  • http://thelondonmom1.blogspot.com/ janine stein

    Great idea for a post! My working persona is concerned and warm.
    In real life I am a cranky bitch.

  • http://www.abccopywriting.com/blog Tom Albrighton

    Thanks to everyone for the comments.

    @Lorraine – thanks for the encouraging words! I should have mentioned that taking the assignment would have involved travelling to the Middle East, as well as training high-level executives. I probably could have done it on a technical level, but I don’t think I would have conveyed a convincing level of confidence to the client.

    @Michael – I also rejected the idea of having two profiles, work and ‘home’. (I work at home.) Apart from the work, there’s still a lot of overlap between work me and home me. Also, work me would have been dull as ditchwater – just a load of queries about semicolons and RTs of SEO articles. Who would follow that guy?

    @janine – I laughed out loud at your comment :)

  • http://www.suttonco.co.uk peterSutton

    ‘We’re professional copywriters based in Norwich, Norfolk, UK”
    Your opening gambit doesn’t really give the impression of a one man band.

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  • http://id.linkedin.com/in/rp2504/ Reza Putra

    Social media is connected to isolation. Using them is somewhat negative in the first place. Personally, I don’t quite think that virtual and real worlds are separate. The only difference could be the latter one is mostly verbal. The way I think is just the same. The way I speak online affects me offline and vice versa.

    Everyone has multiple personality. Social media is just a channel to expose them.