Thursday, November 06, 2003

Who's real? 

There’s a couple of pebbles I want to throw into the pond of the real-vs-online persona debate that is currently going on in various parts of the blogosphere. I guess it will be a perennial topic until such time as the boundary between cyberspace and “realspace” blurs and vanishes.

The current dialogue began here, was picked up here, here, and here, and echoed in a parallel thread here.

To name one of these personas “real” is putting the cart before the horse; I’d rather label these ideas purely descriptively, and call them online and offline personas for now. Having said that, I’m not even convinced it’s valid to talk about separate personas as though they have a well-defined existence. But for the sake of debate let’s make that assumption and see where it leads.

Identity is such a huge area – lifetimes have been spent studying it; volumes written, and now the dabate moves to cyberspace – I can only scratch a tiny part of the subject’s surface here, hence just the two pebbles for now.

The first pebble is about primacy. Perhaps the major distinction between online and offline personas has nothing to do with cyberspace; it is simply that one came first.

Because the offline persona has been established for longer, it is harder to change. It’s easier to become trapped in it, limiting what we might be. Because online has so much less history, we have the feeling of greater freedom – freedom to be authentic or freedom to create masks and facades – as in everything, the choice is ours. Yet maybe it is the straightjacket of the offline habits that is the illusion – offline can be as free as online if we so choose. It’s just harder to change. But the bottom line is that both have many layers to the onion; both can be authentic; both can faked.

The second pebble has to do with the mechanism by which our personas are communicated.

Rapport is built offline by so much more than words. We can’t make eye contact online; we can’t touch. Perhaps the reason that it seems possible to get deeper, quicker with online relationships is that we have to replace these non-verbal cues with written equivalents. If we want to make our feelings known, we have to be more explicit about them, so when compared with an equivalent verbal dialogue, the words suggest a closer relationship. But it’s a rather unbalanced relationship because whilst some elements run deep, others remain completely hidden.

There’s more I want to blog about this - for one thing, it occurs to me that we need a common understanding of what we mean by that term "persona"; to which layer of the onion does it refer? - but it may not be for a day or two as there’s a lot happening in so-called meatspace at the moment. (Job interview tomorrow…)

But as a parting thought for now on the topic, maybe our kids will look back and laugh at our antiquated ideas…

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