A case of unmistaken identities
For the last eighteen months or so, I've been trying an experiment. Being myself online. Not Matt the Mongoose, or some enigmatic avatar, just me. Here on my blog, on twitter, on Facebook, on LinkedIn, on MySpace, and everywhere else where I need to appear on the Internet, I've been plain old Matt Kelland. I've recorded and broadcast pretty much everything as it happened: work, thoughts, events, from the trivial to the life-changing. The world and his bot has been able to follow along as I got divorced, fell in love, got remarried, emigrated, underwent surgery, watched a bunch of movies, ate all sorts of food, promoted Moviestorm, became increasingly disenchanted with the British political system, and babbled inanely in my insomnia.
It's been interesting. I've met a lot of new people that way, and in the process, learned a lot about myself, a lot about other people, and a lot about modern society. As an anthropologist, it's fascinating to observe how we are becoming increasingly used to seeing each other in different contexts, and trying to understand how social structures change once you have a large-scale society with widespread intimate communication. We now have a level of knowledge about each others' lives that's perfectly normal for mediaeval village life, but completely unprecedented on a global scale. I know some people on the other side of the world more closely than I know anyone in this street. Hell, I know them better than I know anyone else in this city outside my household, even though I've never met them in person.
Conversely, of course, they know me rather well.
Too well, I've decided.
It may be the way the younger generation is doing it, but, on reflection, I'm not comfortable with it. It's not that I have anything to hide, it's more that trying to present all sides of myself to everyone just doesn't work. It's even not a matter of privacy. It's just that I naturally adopt different personas in different contexts, and you can't do that when everyone sees exactly the same thing.
So-called social media can't distinguish between different categories of friends, and it has no inherent sense of time and place, let alone what's appropriate when. Effectively, it's become autistic media. We find ourselves behaving in ways that may be acceptable in some circumstances, but without any real sense of what the circumstances actually are for the reader and the appropriate etiquette.
Communication, as I keep reminding myself every day, isn't about the person communicating. It's about how what they say is received by the audience. When I use social media, the audience in my mind consists of the people I converse with most often - those who reply to me, and those who I follow. I don't really take time to consider the 80% of people who just lurk and read. That's a complete contrast to when I write professionally, when the first thing I think about is who's actually going to read what I'm writing.
At work, speaking in public.
Let me put it like this. The people who read my blog, Facebook or Twitter feed include: my family, my kids, my mum, my ex-wife, my boss, my investors, my colleagues, my customers, my potential customers, old school friends & colleagues I've lost touch with, new friends, people who share interests with me, and friends of friends I barely know. Some of those people are extremely close to me, others are passing acquaintances. In any given day, I could find myself talking about work, movies, food, travel, books, writing, games, music, art, politics, history, science, technology, anthropology, psychology, the occult, mythology, sport, airships, motorbikes, local events, my social & personal life, or just passing on dumb jokes & links.
In the autistic media world, I'm talking about all of those things to all of those people. Most of them, of course, aren't interested in most of those things. (And if the truth be told, I'm not interested in all of those things all of the time either.)
In the real world, I'd address that by choosing the right contexts and the right groups of people for the different subjects, and adjust my attitudes, speech and behaviour accordingly. If I were talking about last weekend's rugby, for example, I'd have a whole different conversation with the guys from my rugby club, my friends in Orlando, and my stepdad. There are some subjects I'd prefer to avoid entirely in front of my mum or my kids. And when my readers include people I know professionally, it feels like I'm at work and on show all the time.
Effectively, autistic media can't distinguish between the office and the pub, between an afternoon with your closest friends and a school reunion, or between a interest and an obsession. Your drunken weekend escapades make their way to your workplace, and your hobbyist friends have to put up with the minutiae of your work. You bombard your casual acquaintances with things they really don't need to know, and then your other friends drop you right in the shit with their comments about things that were funny at the time but which you'd rather stayed within that group.
General vs special relatives
In the old days, blogs were much more focused, which provided a social context. If I wrote a machinima blog, that would be my identity. Who I "really am" wouldn't matter. What you'd be interested in would be purely my opinions and what I had to say on that one subject. It's also an asymmetric relationship. I write, you read, you may comment if you wish, and I may choose to respond. I would engage my interests with a set of special-purpose relationships: a number of forums or mailing lists to chat about my hobbies, blogs to write about my interests, and a protected journal to share with those closest to me. In fact, most of the blogs I read these days are still special-interest blogs. It's not that the authors are necessarily monomaniacs, they just choose not to share the rest of themselves with the likes of me.
The generalised nature of sites like Facebook, though, changes that. By centralising all of those specialised things, it makes it much easier to communicate more, and it becomes trivial to transfer information between groups. Twitter crossposts to MySpace, my blog crossposts to Facebook and Google, Facebook feeds everything and slurps everything back out again. I have absolutely no idea where you're reading this. I don't have to cut'n'paste a link from my steampunk mailing list to the airships blog, I just hit share or retweet, and all my airship-loving friends can see the whateveritis. I don't have to tell ten different groups why I liked Avatar, I just post it once, and it goes to everyone. My readers know "who I am", and they're not getting some manufactured authorial personality, they can see the "real me", just as if they were my closest friends. In fact, they're all my friends now, aren't they?
It seems like a great idea, but imagine this. There's a huge room, and it's filled with every single one of your followers. (In my case, that's a bit under a thousand people.) Now, every time you say something, just shout into this megaphone, and it'll get blasted out on a PA to all of them. And if that wasn't crazy enough, every one of them has their own megaphone and their own PA, and they're yelling too.
That's just dumb.
That's all our social conventions shot to hell and replaced with a Tower of Babel. We're all talking, and nobody's listening.
Is this the real me? Is this just fantasy?
Will the real Matt please stand up?
So, I'm pretty much thinking that my "integrated personality" is something that doesn't need to exist online. I'd be much better off as a set of disconnected identities, each tailored for different social contexts, just as I am in real life. In those contexts, I can speak as I choose, indulge my interests as I choose, and without risk of upsetting or boring anyone else.
At the end of the day, there are only so many people I can cope with. It's about 150, which you may recognise as Dunbar's number. Interestingly, Dunbar's in the middle of a study on Facebook friends, and is likely to conclude that however many "friends" we have, we only interact with about 150 of them.
I guess the upshot is that I plan to make some major changes to my online personae. I'll probably create separate personal and professional twitter feeds & facebook accounts. I'll have a really hard think about what I want to say online, and who I want to say it to, and which of those factors is dominant. Do I select my audience to be receptive to what I want to say, or do I tailor my postings to match my audience? Probably the former, personally, and the latter, professionally. I may set up some different blogs for niche interests, and think about posting there rather than onto the more general feeds. I'm certainly planning to post a lot less until I feel like I know who's actually listening to me.
One day, autistic media will become truly social, in that it will understand social contexts and allow us to present ourselves appropriately in each. There's a lot to learn. After all, we're trying to replicate tens of thousands of years of social evolution with technology that's only a few decades old. It's a big task.