The Online Persona

Blog Entries, Essays

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“Hi! My name is Susan, and I’m 36 years old. I live in Georgia, and I like baking apple pies!”

It’s that easy to create a persona online. Suddenly, you’re talking in someone else’s voice, wearing their imaginary hair and living their imaginary life. You can be years older, or younger, and as popular and sophisticated as you want.

It’s exhilarating. In five minutes, I can lose the life that I’m anchored to in real time, shed pounds and be athletic, charming and good-looking. I can divest myself of normal life and dive the sparkling waters of make-believe.

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This is hardly a novel concept, since the internet is not exactly brand new. But now everyone is on it, from pre-adolescents to teens, to moms and dads, and older men and women who joined “by mistake” just to read that one post and submitted faulty information on their profile.

With the advent of Facebook, people online have moved away from the “I can be anyone” line of imagination, and into the subtler, but possibly more dangerous, “I can represent myself as anything I want”. In the past, it was a given that an online personality might be what it was claiming to be, but probably wasn’t. It wasn’t hard to see such personas as a projection of who a person wanted to be. Nowadays, as social media has taken on such a dynamic role in the way people communicate, we can take it for granted that what we’re seeing isn’t the whole picture.

Welcome to Facebook. Instead of forum and message board lurkers with usernames and pseudonyms and pot luck personalities, there are pictures and real names associated with that person’s life. No more Susans from Georgia; now it’s ME, the real-life me, online. Take it or leave it.

So now, whatever I choose to represent myself with comes across as the real me. The options are still open, but now the guise I’m using is much more dramatic: Realism. Everything I do has my name and face attached to it, which makes it a lot more believable. And everyone’s doing it. Smiling profile pictures with a bunch of friends, status updates that are fit to a specific theme, tags and hashtags and shares and likes… We let these online tools do the job of telling the world who we are.

And possibly because we all do it, we have no problem being lied to on a daily basis. We don’t mind seeing a friend’s posts in our Newsfeed and imagining we know what’s up in their life because we let them do the same for us. But we have no idea.

Social media has only gained in momentum in the past few years, and will continue to do so, unless something major happens. Not only are people spending more of their lives online, they’re putting more of their lives online. I don’t mean personal information, although that’s true, too. I’m referring to the fact that we come to rely on Facebook as our interaction with other people. We will only continue to increase our superficial data intake, and allow cherry-picked posts to speak for themselves.

And it’s dangerous. Of course, I don’t think everyone should be putting their entire life on Facebook either – the cons of that approach are obvious. (We don’t want to know what you ate for breakfast, or what your latest emotional drama is all about.) But we need a reality check: Facebook isn’t real life, that what you see isn’t what you get, that Facebook is nothing but a tool, and we can’t pretend it’s the real thing.

Thanks for reading.

This is Susan from Georgia, signing off.

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