TEN years ago if you had asked, who I was online? I probably would have told you that I was just myself. Well who else did you expect me to be? This was despite the fact that the few social media profiles I had were all listed under pseudonyms. The only ‘real’ Brett Barfoot existed via my LinkedIn profile.
Looking back at how I portrayed myself online in my mid-20s gives the impression of someone who views the online world as more a means of self-promotion rather than a place where you regularly contributed or voiced your opinion. It was a place where I could demonstrate my professionalism in a bid to impress my next employer. I was adamant then that an online persona had to be a demonstration of someone ‘putting their best foot forward.’ I’d hoped that it was in a way perceived as ‘good,’ ‘wholesome,’ truthful to the best qualities I had to offer the workforce and ultimately capitalism. Whether I realised it or not at the time, Pooley (cited in Smith, S and Watson, J 2014) would have described my persona as a form of ‘calculated authenticity,’ selling myself while attempting not to appear to be selling myself.
It was what I assumed to be merely an extension of myself from offline. Green (cited in Smith, S and Watson J 2014) confirms this tendency when thinking of online activities and the self. It is often perceived as pre-existing, a self ‘brought to computers from the culture at large.’
I joined Twitter in 2010 because I thought it would be a good place to keep track of the news. I started the account with the pseudonym metal_brett – a sort of ‘half-name’ that included my musical taste and my first name. It didn’t take long before I was tweeting, testing the waters and providing customer service feedback about my experiences. On another occasion I decided to respond to a live ‘tweet in’ to the ABC show Q&A. I thought at the time it would be humorous to see my abstract expression broadcast on live television.
Looking back at my behaviour, I believe that the pseudonym provided me some kind of room in order to express my opinions in a public place while protecting my professional identity. While I have since changed my twitter name, the pseudonyms I use aren’t exactly lies, are they? I mean if Jetstar were to do some research and track me down to provide me free flights – which they’re most welcome to do of course 🙂 – I’d ‘own up’ to posting it. I wasn’t exactly trying to be dishonest or have complete anonymity.
It’s this back and forth nature of anonymity that Hogan (2013, p. 293) argues exists because pseudonymity can work in tandem. He states that it doesn’t work on a sliding scale like that of Donath (1999) described before contemporary social media where there was either the ‘totally anonymous to the thoroughly named.” Hogan says either your presence online lacks identifiable qualities and you are in a state of anonymity, you practice pseudonymity once or continue to use it as a means of ‘persistent alternate markers of identity.’
But hang on a minute, isn’t that trolling? I would have thought this in the early days of digital media. My perception of how someone would portray themselves was just an extension of themselves and not something that seemed so malleable and transitional. As far as I was concerned, if I was online in one place then I’d be expected to be the same person somewhere else. It was this that made interacting online seem so tedious and painful.
I loathed the thought of presenting my ‘job interview’ self to my social media connections while I was concerned that I’d have to keep up the same professionalism for all those that saw me online. I don’t want just my resume to be how people perceive me. It’s this conflict that Marwick and Boyd (cited in van der Nagel & Frith 2015) describe as a context collapse where a user’s entire social network can be found online which forces them to interact and construct an identity that is not segmented as it is typically offline.
‘You’ve got to be very careful what you say online,’ I lectured my younger brother. This is probably the smoking gun of reasons why my online persona has been so limited until recently. As far as I was concerned the online domain was one where employers and people of influence frequented and if you ‘tripped up’ online either bringing attention to yourself by publishing something that you wouldn’t want your neighbour to hear then the digital world was a dangerous place to negotiate. It was alright to look on and spectate what was happening on there but to actually engage and show a side of myself that I didn’t believe would help my job prospects – sent shivers up my spine.
A dystopian rhetoric kicked around by the media and my peers also probably fuelled my perception that it was safer to be hidden online to some extent. It’s a misconception that I used to explain my absence for years. ‘Oh you never know what they could do with your information’ or ‘giant companies shouldn’t have so much power.’
It’s this belief that fed my perception that if you were to have an online persona then it had better be professional and that participation on platforms like Facebook was the opposite. I had a Facebook profile in the mid ‘00s which I initially engaged with before I muted it and then ultimately deleted. Wortham (2011) indicates that I wasn’t the only one pulling the plug on Facebook at the time and I could be deemed as a “Facebook Resister.” Also, Facebook user growth in the United States had dropped 56% in 2011 compared to the previous year.
If you could ask my online persona what I thought about digital media in 2006, I would have probably told you that quite frankly, the use of it by others worried me. The existence of peers and family members online is another major reason for the use of pseudonyms. Call me a digital media prude if you like but I was becoming exposed to embarrassing online sagas orchestrated by family members that would force anyone to disconnect. It didn’t take long before I found myself intervening through fear and desperation: “You can’t say that you fool!” I cried. “Take it down, you must take that post down!”
Until recently when I delved into the online world via my Media major did I realise that this type of black and white thinking was not how ultimately engagement and personas online are perceived. Let’s just say that it was fascinating to read of online personas who work across a myriad of different accounts all publishing opinions, views and commentary in different tone and perspectives. It seemed most people used their online personas in different ways for different audiences.
In 2016, I started again. I changed my twitter name and put more thought about how I would be perceived online. This time I’m going to use what I know about identity and audiences to craft myself my very own niche based upon the very best of ‘me’ that I have to offer.
Tweets embedded from @brett_writer
In conclusion I have learnt that the online world doesn’t necessarily have to be a risky place to negotiate if you responsibly think about how you portray yourself. It seems that we’re all involved in a kind of personal branding process where the roles and restrictions of the traditional media that we once relied upon haven fallen away. It’s now up to us to run our very own personal marketing agencies.
So what’s your brand?
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My broader online activity and engagement
At this point my participation online and my engagement with digital media is evident in my regular contribution to the unit #hashtags on Twitter and the compilation of my blog: insearch of I – Digital Identity, Participation & Dystopia.
Cover, R 2014, ‘Becoming and Belonging: Performativity, Subjectivity, and the Cultural Purposes of Social Networking,’ in Poletti, A and Rak, J, Identity Technologies: Constructing the Self Online, The University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, p 58.
Donath, J S 1999, ‘Identity and deception in the virtual community,’ in: Smith, M. A and Kollock, P (eds), Communities in cyberspace, Routledge, London, pp. 29-59.
Hogan, B 2013, ‘Pseudonyms and the rise of the real-name Web,’ in: Hartley, J, Burgess, J and Bruns, A (eds), A companion to new media dynamics, Chichester: Wiley, pp. 290–307
Smith, S and Watson, J 2014, ‘Virtually Me: A Toolbox about Online Self-Presentation,’ in Poletti, A and Rak, J, Identity Technologies: Constructing the Self Online, The University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, p 75.
Van der Nagel, E and Frith, J 2015, ‘Anonymity, pseudonymity, and the agency of online identity: Examining the social practices of r/G,’ First Monday, vol. 20, no. 3-2, DOI http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v20i3.5615, http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/5615/4346
Wortham, J 2011, The Facebook resisters, The New York Times, 13 December, retrieved 5 April 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/14/technology/shunning-facebook-and-living-to-tell-about-it.html?ref=technology&_r=1