I’ve been fascinated by the idea of persona lately, whether it be a literary persona, a work persona, a dramatic character persona, a psychological persona or the new incarnation of the digital on-line persona. I find myself constantly donning masks to the point of wondering who I am. Am I the husband? The parent? The lawyer? The writer? The sinner? The saint? Am I my digital persona? Who the hell am I?
Social networking sites like FaceBook and MySpace are exercises in persona creation. I get to pick and chose the facade I give the digital world. The more devout afficionados of the digital world create their own websites. The real world is reflected in the digital world, but it is a funhouse mirror warped by the design and desire of each person posting.
The creation of a persona or societal mask is nothing new. High school is where every adolescent cuts their teeth on persona creation and the high school personas are predictable – the hot girl, the bookworm, the jock, the drama queen, the rebel. Go rent a copy of The Breakfast Club if you need a refresher course. Adults aren’t much better in the lawyer’s suits, the houses on the hill, the cars (or big trucks) and the entire fashion and makeup industry.
Digital persona are frighteningly easy to create, desperately hard to maintain and control. Fleshy manifestations of persona aren’t easily copied or replicated and due to years of culturization more easily interpreted. Changing one’s flesh persona took time and effort and was a gradual process. I’m no Luddite, but the digital persona swoon can make me light headed.
Another downside is the Narcissistic quality of digital persona, basically a "look at me" culture. Maybe that is why it always feels like high school – it is the adolescent technology screaming for attention. How will digital technology mature? Or are we to be always mired in MySpace and FaceBook?
As I was writing that last paragraph, I realized that I was a little bit off put by the fact that the geeky technology, which used to provide anonymity and protection to my anti-social side has turned into an exhibitionistic orgy with the explosion of social networking sites. I’m the nerd with glasses again being simultaneously turned on and socially overwhelmed by the cheerleader.
The technology has advanced to the point where maintaining a digital life is a little bit like being an adolescent whose diary is always accessible to their parents. Whatever you post, whatever you say, whatever floats off your keyboard into the internet ether is probably and in most instances lost forever, yet on occasion, it comes back transfigured into something unrecognizable or terrifying, often carried by the panting mutt, Google.
Google sounds like goggles and those Google goggles are peering at your every move trying to reduce your fleshy persona into a consuming, buying, advertising accessible animal whose data is slowly being filled in. Google is trying to clone you and anticipate your every move and like Pavlov’s dogs we salivate because Google gives us what we want. Google is the digital Big Brother watching our every move.
My predisposition has always been towards privacy – be it digital or earthly. Yet, I’m starting to wonder if privacy is such a great thing. I’m still very interested in protecting things that people want kept private, but I see a benefit to the lack of on-line privacy. The benefit is by being constantly googled, goggled and gapped at, the mature development is to create an on-line persona with integrity that includes the various flesh incarnations’ strengths and faults. In a world of ones and zeros, the digital persona that best reflects the real person will give the real person the most value in the real world. Become one with your digital self.
The other factor in this privacy debate is that the Internet is essentially the marketplace. Humans have always congregated for social and economic exchange and the two have always gone hand in hand. Posting on-line is supposed to have an economic impact for the participant. Do any of us really expect privacy in the marketplace? The two are incongruous. You enter the marketplace (and I envision street bazaars or farmer’s markets) and nothing is private. To resurrect a cliche, people who live in glass blogs shouldn’t post stones – or something like that.
Simply realizing that the on-line world is a big market free-for-all changes all sorts of perceptions about on-line privacy.
We now convey information more freely, but we are still working on the infrastructure for how that is to function economically. Our libraries are manifestation of the willingness to pay economically for ideas, but the pricing of those ideas has always been a conflict. I’m writing this sitting in my library at home, cocooned in books. Many of the authors died impecunious – Thomas Paine and Oscar Wilde are a couple that spring to mind. Great ideas and great writing have not always ended in an economic payoff. Dying has often been one of those great mechanisms for validating an artistic position. The point is the old system wasn’t always that great at allocating economic resources to benefit the writer and artist and the new system suffers from the same problem, but also offers some unique solutions.
The main solution I see is that it allows us to create social networks that match our own predispositions. I’m no economist and I’m a little bit upset that they made economics such a dry topic when I took it in college, because I’m fascinated by it now, particularly as it pertains to writing and art. I read a short story by Tolstoy, "How Much Land Does a Man Need?" this week. The moral of the story is essentially don’t forget your mortality in your acquisitiveness.
How much income does an artist need? This is the question I find intriguing in light of the internet culture. I wonder how much income would I need from my writing to pull the literary equivalent of a Gaugin and chuck it all and move to Tahiti and spend the rest of my life swimming in the warm tropical words. I do the math. 1000 fans at $10 a month and I think I could probably do it. Math is an evil thing, because 10x1000 is such an easy equation. You see someone with 850 friends on FaceBook or you see the amount of traffic other blogs receive and it almost seems do-able.
The problem is that the art suffers if you turn from artist to huckster to get your thousand, so the art must come first. Which brings me back to the original thrust of this post – what is a digital persona? Is it the huckster selling? Is it the tortured artist? Is it the social butterfly? Is it the bitter misanthrope? Who am I and why have I donned this digital mask and entered this new frontier? In the past, I’ve always been just a little bit fearful of what I’ve posted on-line, wondering about the what ifs were a client, a potential reader, a judge, another attorney, my siblings or my parents to read this. The answer is amazingly simple and amazingly difficult all at the same time – be a person of integrity and it doesn’t matter.