“Avatardentity”: thoughts on the authentic online self

A few semi-related blog posts about writing and identity have been churning around in my head lately, and I’ve meant to respond with one of my own.  But honestly I haven’t had time to put all my thoughts together about them in anything approaching an intelligent essay, so I’ll just throw the links out there with some random first thoughts, and perhaps start a larger discussion while I sort it all out in my overstuffed brain.

Diana Kimball’s In The Absence of Fiction is a great piece of personal reflection on “self-writing” and how the way we see things through the looking glass of Twitter and blogs can distort the meanings we assign to them.

K. Holden Helena tweeted this shortly after I read Diana’s piece.  I swear she also wrote a blog post on a similar topic, but for the life of me I cannot find it1.

Shortly thereafter, Diana published a knockout follow-up piece called Algorithms and Avatars in which she further explores the nature of “who we are” online, and how we cultivate and shape our identities.

It’s my general belief that the person we “put ourselves out there” as online is, phenomenonally speaking, no different than the person we would have put ourselves out there as 20, 30, or even 50 years ago.  Yes, the tools are there to handcraft a virtual personality for ourselves, but I don’t see how it’s all that different than what people have always done to make the same impressions; the effort to craft an impression of “us” has simply shifted to a different kind of community and in-crowd.  Today we are no more the sum of the things we choose to put on Flickr, Twitter, blogs, etc. than we were the sum of our shiny DeSoto and Cape Cod house and electric range and picket fence in 1954.  Same rules, same desires to “be” a certain person, different means of projecting an image.  So despite our newfound ability to shape our online self—our “avatardentity”, if you will—we’ve always been shaping ourselves.

The methods we use to judge the authenticity of a person online versus in person do get a bit more involved, I’ll admit; the line between truth and fiction is much less pronounced.  It’s more difficult to engage with people and participate in communities of interest when we’re always uncertain who is being “authentic” and who is simply playing a role.  But I’m confident that most people sophisticated enough to participate and be accepted into many of those communities have pretty good instincts, and don’t tend to misread the boundaries of sarcasm, personal truth, and outright fiction.  I also believe the next generation of people to have spent the entirety of their lives cultivating an online persona will be even better equipped to function in that space; kids today have the best bullshit detectors of all.  They have to.

As far as the integration of voice and storytelling into the truths we put out there about ourselves (which is the main point of my interest in the posts mentioned above), I can only speak for myself.  Holden’s point about wanting to hear stories in Twitter is a salient one, and for me, every tweet I see from people I follow is a story.  And collectively, they tell even larger stories.  The jokes and one-liner humor are a lot of fun, but every once in a while even the most jaded and anonymous Twitterer will let their guard down and tweet something unexpectedly genuine.  Bang – there’s your drama.  There’s your story.  And in 140 characters.  I love when that happens.

I can state for the record that every piece of me “out there” with my name attached to it in any way is a genuine piece of me.  The tone and syntax of my Tweets are often different from that of my blog, which in turn differs a bit from the way I write blog comments to other people, which is slightly different than how I speak in person, which is very different from my screenwriting voice, which varies in many ways from my fiction prose style, which in the end is very different than the way I write for freelance assignments.  Each piece may sound quite different, but a thread of continuity runs through every single word of it in my distinct voice.  None of it is any less of me, yet it’s all written for varying audiences and media.  Most of my fiction has parts of me and my genuine life in it (how can it not?), and some of my nonfiction has elements of hyperbole and poetic license.  I think it’s that way for all of us, and for those of us who write (and otherwise create), trying to find some clean dividing line can cause paralysis of effort and a loss of focus on who we’re actually writing for.

Thoughts?

  1. Holden – if you know which one I’m referring to, care to point me to it?
posted 8/18/08 at 12:43pm to Writing · 3 replies · »

3 replies to ““Avatardentity”: thoughts on the authentic online self”

  1. Brett said:

    This got me to thinking that with physical (non-virtual) communication there is a great deal that is related non-verbally, which creates a larger context for a semantic and intuitive apprehension of things like authenticity and sincerity. I would go out on a limb to speculate that the words probably matter less that how they are said and the various cues of eye, tone, and body language that are both expressed and received, consciously or not. Malcolm Gladwell had an interesting discussion of microexpressions and what they reveal along these lines.

    When it comes to speaking of authenticity with regard to virtual identities, what strikes me is that in the absence of non-verbal cues, these nuances of authenticity, identity and feeling are inferred to some extent from meta-verbal (supra-verbal?) parsing of the words and their characteristics and connotations. Elements of humor, original, differentiability, authorial identity are construed in some ‘working’ sense from the words and their construction, making these authorial choices more self-conscious and careful (for the most part).

    In my inchoate theory of things, this creates a greater split between the expressive authenticity of the virtual author and the receptive construction put together by an interested recipient. I’m speculating that in physical communication, this authenticity is more immediate and narrow in that sense, part of the evolutionary ‘blink’-like quick assessment of the interaction; whereas the virtual creates a zone that temporally bifurcates, to my mind, the determination of authenticity between the moment of expression and a subsequent reception.

    Aug 18, 2008 at 1:52pm
  2. Links for Monday, August 18th | mindpollution.org said:

    […] delgrosso dot com » “Avatardentity”: thoughts on the authentic online self – … "It’s my general belief that the person we “put ourselves out there” as online is, phenomenonally speaking, no different than the person we would have put ourselves out there as 20, 30, or even 50 years ago. Yes, the tools are there to handcraft a virtual personality for ourselves, but I don’t see how it’s all that different than what people have always done to make the same impressions; the effort to craft an impression of “us” has simply shifted to a different kind of community and in-crowd. Today we are no more the sum of the things we choose to put on Flickr, Twitter, blogs, etc. than we were the sum of our shiny DeSoto and Cape Cod house and electric range and picket fence in 1954. Same rules, same desires to “be” a certain person, different means of projecting an image. So despite our newfound ability to shape our online self—our “avatardentity”, if you will—we’ve always been shaping ourselves." […]

    Aug 18, 2008 at 7:55pm
  3. pj said:

    Hmm…

    I think perhaps it’s not really a bifurcation–

    I’m talking about ‘virtual’ communication. Which may be slightly different from just ‘virtual expression’. The latter has a passive receptor, the former an active one.

    In any case, when it’s on the screen, that longer-than-a-blink space in between “moment of expression” and “subsequent reception” is not the distance between two parallel lines, or even converging lines where one and the other cross in a moment of understanding or “authenticity”.

    That space in between is a different realm entirely, and there is not an authenticity (a ‘realness’ of a person) that is achieved, but an integrity (a ‘wholeness’) of a singular human being.

    It’s variable distances, it’s amorphous wordblobs, it’s sometimes ‘getting it’ or ‘missing it’ but it is still and always will be: contact. Encounter. I mean, real-life human (body) interaction is mysterious enough… I think it’s entirely logical (or intuitive) to believe that one’s avatar/virtual persona is one’s essential (pertaining to or constituting the essence of a thing) identity.

    I agree that there is a ‘meta’ or ‘supra’ verbal interaction. That’s what I find truly exciting about this longer-than-a-blink world, and what it means for writing. The space in between is a malleable thing. How an artist fashions this medium is truly something to see.

    Aug 21, 2008 at 6:00pm

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