Can You Really Be You On the Internet Anymore?

On the internet, you are invisible and yet cannot hide from anyone. On the internet, you are both just a number and a unique entity. On the internet, everyone and no one is looking for you, all at the same time.

But are they really looking for you? And if so, are they finding the real you? Or are they merely finding the image you wish to share of yourself?

In late 2011, I lost my job. It was the first job I had out of grad school. I loved that job. I loved helping the people I got to interact with on a daily basis. I loved (most of) the people I worked with. I loved my short commute which let me drive home and eat lunch[1] if I wanted to. But between the company I worked for nearing shutting down and my relatively low “sales” numbers[2], I was an expendable cog in the machine.

I spent the better part of the next two months looking for a job. Between my own work and the help of a pair of staffing agencies, I had 8-10 interviews per month during the time I was unemployed. At the same time I was looking for a job, NaNoWriMo was going on. I took part in NaNoWriMo that year to provide myself a little bit of relief from the mental exhaustion that the job search caused me. Those two months I was unemployed was a pretty bleak time in my life — and my novel I wrote that November followed an even darker tone.

In early 2009, I was having a rough time adjusting to life out of college. I’d moved back home and started living with my grandparents. I took the first job I could find out of college[3], which meant I was working at a call center for less than a dollar an hour above the minimum wage. My then-girlfriend made it clear to me that I’d fallen much harder for her than she had for me. Couple that with some prejudices that I’d had formed in childhood that I still hadn’t moved on from[4], and that led to us breaking up quickly and extremely heatedly.

All of that combined together led to me seeing a psychologist for a few months. After our fourth or fifth appointment together, I had to tell the psychologist I couldn’t afford to keep coming to see her. Between my low paying job, working overnight hours, and not being able to afford health insurance[5], it just wasn’t realistic to keep getting professional help. The psychologist understood my plight and recommended that I try writing as a therapeutic technique. The goal was to get all of the thoughts and emotions I was struggling to cope with out of my head, if only to save myself the frustration of dealing with said thoughts.

So that’s what I did. And it worked. Writing allowed me to clear my head. It’s worked when I’ve written shitty 50 word posts online. It’s worked when I’ve turned those emotions into a much more creative endeavor. If it wasn’t for that advice — write to help my own psyche — I don’t know where I’d be in life today.

Yet as time as gone on, I’ve found myself more careful about what I write and talk about on the internet. Part of that is a natural fact of growing up and growing more mature in the process. But part of it is also this nagging feeling that somewhere, somehow, should I ever need a new job in the future, someone’s going to stumble on my work, see a post where I’m just venting off steam, and decide I’m a terrible human being. Job opportunity lost.

I know I’m not the only person that thinks this way. I follow more than a handful of people on Twitter who work as social media managers (or an equivalent role) for companies. A couple of them are actually promote themselves as their own brand. On one hand, it’s a brilliant ploy. In an increasingly digitized and interconnected world, who better than you to control the message that the media tells about you. It’s been the basis of American economics and politics for years now. Put yourself out there in the light you want other people to see you in.

On the other hand, only showing the happy, healthy, and hopeful sides of ourselves to the world is a foolish endeavor. We are complex individuals. We laugh and we cry. We do not do one or the other. To try to hide the fact that sometimes we fuck up is a failure in logic. Without mistakes, how can we learn how we need to improve ourselves?

I was asked recently when I was going to write a happy story. My short stories are generally pretty dark in nature, so why not try writing a happy one. Right? Most of me doesn’t want to. That’s not why I write. If a story ends up being happy, great. But I write in general — but especially my fiction — to help me process complex emotions, to release frustration, or just to be creative as I can be in turning an idea into something that I want to read. Generally, those stories end up being very dark.

Yet I find myself wondering if I’d be better received if I wrote happy stories. Would I be a better selling author? Would a book of upbeat stories I wrote be reviewed better than my collection of dark short stories[6]? Would a happy story enhance my brand and bring more eyes to my work?

That last question — that’s the one that frightens me. It’s the question that determines which side of the line I fall on. Am I a person or am I a commodity? That’s the power of the internet. It’s a terrifying power. Most people don’t even realize that power’s being exerted on them when it’s happening. Everyone can see everything and yet you’re all alone.

Kind of a dark idea, is it not? An entity that can completely change who you perceive yourself to be without you realizing it. It’s like you’re not even you anymore when you’re on the internet.

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4 thoughts on “Can You Really Be You On the Internet Anymore?

  1. Here’s how I see it. At least, how it seems to work for me. I’m not 100% myself on the internet, at least, I don’t show all the sides I show, say, my boyfriend or my best friend. But I think I’m being genuinely myself (in other words, I’m not being something I’m NOT), and a decently well rounded self too. I don’t show only the good or the bad sides, I show a little of both like one might with a friend, but not a best friend.

    People who might hire me almost always find my blog. They simply must not be offended by my liberal perspective, foul language, non-traditional views on love and relationships, and openness about certain topics like abuse and sexual orientation. But if they’re willing to look past those things, if not embrace them, they’ll also find someone honest, dedicated, hard working, genuine and community minded, all traits that are reflected in both my internet life and my work life.

    The way I see it, I’m not really pretending to be anything I’m not in any facet of my life–not with work, family, relationships, or the internet. I have a bit of a “take it or leave it, this is who I am” mentality about it all. So I can, with that mindset, more or less talk about what I want where I want without worrying about it fitting into a “brand.” Within reason, of course, and keeping in mind that I’m still trying to be a kind, conscientious and overall pleasant person. You, Tim, very well might sell more books if you wrote happier stories, but then again, some of our most celebrated writers were dark as fuck. Maybe you need a little more “take it or leave it” attitude in your life, because your work is good and YOU like it and it helps you. So fuck ’em, is what I have to say. Let them get happy stories from people who mean them.

    That said I do worry about this myself sometimes in that I feel a bit of pressure to cater to my funny side on the internet, just because that’s how I sell myself. I tend to stay off Twitter on my extra moody days. So there’s a bit of hiding there…but then I hide from MOST of the world on moody days so I suppose it still remains that I present myself on the internet the way I present myself to most of my friends.

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    1. As much as I’d like to think companies will be accepting of their employees’ political, social, and other beliefs, regardless of what they are, I know very well that’s not always the case. I do think, however, your point is valid about the fact that perhaps I need to adopt more of a “take it or leave it” mentality. I know I’m wont to try to make people happy as often as I possibly can, regardless of the situation. While I do this because I feel that acting compassionately is critical to being a good person, I know I’ve found myself in situations where I’ve been criticized because standing my ground on a situation has gone against what someone wanted to hear. In the end, I relented, but I felt terrible after the fact. Especially since I knew I was in the right.

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  2. Ah did you get into my head? Seriously. I’ve thought a lot about this topic. I mean I have no answers. But I’ve thought a lot about it.

    The idea about writing a happier story is interesting. My husband & I share an Audible account, and we were trying to figure out if he would like any of “my” books. But over 1/2 of them have something he doesn’t want to read about- child abuse, etc- and he made the comment about how dark it all is. But that’s usually the stuff I find most interesting.

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    1. I’m the same way, both in my reading and my own writing. It’s almost cathartic in a way to read sad stories. Hank/John Green (not sure which one of them said it) was talking about the psychology behind this on the Dear Hank and John podcast recently. It’s apparently an actual scientific thing.

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