The “Myth” of Online Authenticity or Phill Engages Billie’s Post

My friend (I hope she’d consider me such) and colleague Billie Hara recently posted this spot on blog entry about digital identity on her personal blog. I wish to applaud her, and I encourage any scholars in our field who aren’t thinking about digital identity to make sure they turn their attention there, at least briefly, to see what is happening.

A large portion of the big ol’ project I just finished (heh) was about digital identity formation and the tensions of pseudonyms as real identities and real identities behind/intermingled with those pseudonyms (I looked at a World of Warcraft raiding guild, and sometime soon I’ll be showing off some specific findings from that study).  What I want to talk about today, in this post, is something I’ve balked at posting on my blog because I’m afraid it might ruffle a few feathers, but I’m also confident that anyone reading this will understand the context and that I’m approaching this as a researcher who can comment on it with some degree of confidence.

There was a trend, about two years ago leading into last academic year (I haven’t heard it as often over the past several months) for me to hear other academics– specifically those who teach anything from first and second grade up to graduate classes– talking about what fell into two different camps of ways to behave in online space (it is, of course, a mistake to assert that there are only two ways; I am speaking in general about the ways these conversations divided).

I can best express the two sides by contrasting myself with a friend who I shall not identify by name to protect the innocent, as we sit at the two poles. I hate the term “digital native”– I think it’s ridiculous (not to mention that my spider sense goes off when I see the word “native” anywhere)– but as it is to be understood, I am pretty sure I am it. I’ve been talking to people online since I had to use TALK in a Unix shell and had to lurk on BBSes before finally finding USEnet. I’ve been here, and I’ve never really hidden myself. From anyone. This colleague of mine, meanwhile, uses social media in a way that is far, far more wide open than myself, often sharing emotions or talking about deeply personal issues. Said colleague, I think well advisedly, keeps the teaching world (and the teacher identity) separate from that social media presence. No friend accepts for students. No sharing of personal Twitter handles. No links to personal blogs.

I understand that. In fact, I celebrate that. I think that to do that is far more noble than the sort of “ride the edge of the lightning bolt” thing that I’ve chosen to do instead. But my stance is this: I’m Phill Alexander. I have never in my life done anything I’m so ashamed of that I’d hide from it. I’ve never crossed the law, never really wronged anyone (that I know of), and while my rhetoric at times can be spicy, I generally tend to be a docile, collaborative cat. And I’m a big old nerd. I like to play with new tech toys, I like gaming, I get obsessed with TV shows and want to go post on fan boards to debate what the Smoke Monster was on LOST and things like that. I collect Glue stickers and am not above pretending that I watched something so I can check in and add to my total.

I balance my identity in that space on a pinhead. I don’t pursue my students in digital space (because I think that’s creepy– to be an 18 year old and get a friend invite from your 35 year old prof is just not cool, and I know that), but I don’t shy away. I accept friend requests. I tweet at my students and coworkers if they tweet at me. My blog, as you can see, sits right here at where anyone can find it.

I’ve recently even gone so far as to let my gaming identity–which I did try to keep separate from my teacher identity for a time just because i didn’t want the people I gamed with to feel weird– blend over, and my WoW guildies, some of which were part of my research project and have continued to endure my long-winded Deathknightery, post to my Facebook page. I do not feel any sense of shame, nor do I feel, as George Costanza once did, that my worlds are colliding. I do think my WoW friends think I’m a bigger dork from seeing me as  a teacher, and I know for a fact that some of my teaching colleagues think me an even bigger nerd (for the better or the worse) having heard me talk like a gamer about gaming.

I share the goofy memes– another thing I’m writing about now– that I create with my students. My life, such as it exists, is open to them.

But here’s the hook I’ve been working to.

This is not my “authentic” self. I am hesitant to use that word, as Doug Walls and I had numerous discussions about it while he was creating a video that would later appear in Kairos, but that’s the word that people tend to use.

I will take it a step further. None of us are ever our authentic selves in digital space. I think some of us come close, but what we sometimes lose track of is that our writing in digital space is always already a rhetorical act. The profile pictures we choose. The toons we play. The Facebook apps we utilize. The amount of what we’re thinking and feeling we share. The way we share it. Our timing, the things we’re explicit about and the things we leave implicit. All of this we calculate in some fashion.

There was a time when I’d have argued that even for all my rhetorical training I was “keeping it real” online. But I know that’s a lie. One day, a little over a year ago, I posted something that I shouldn’t have.

Look at that sentence. It’s a confession. But look at what I just said. I posted something on a social networking site that I shouldn’t have.

That very realization indicates that there’s a filter, an internal critic, that determines what can be part of the “real” digital Phill Alexander. What I think is curious, though, is how I came to know I’d crossed the line. It’s so simple that it feels elegant.

I did something as virtual Phill that flesh-and-blood IRL Phill wouldn’t ever do. I shared an opinion so deeply rooted in my own time/space, from a nerve that was rubbed so raw, that it was something I’d never verbalize because I know full well it  would lead only to bad tidings. But given the freedom to type, along with my own gung-ho belief that we have digital freedom to be digitally individual… I convinced myself to let something out that really needed to just be Phill’s little musing. Maybe it was a journal entry gone mad. At any rate, it was a teachable moment and a cautionary tale. Trust me, you don’t want to get bad buzz back from your social media presence. It stings.

Even before that moment I’d “called BS” so to speak on people who claimed they were showing their unfiltered selves to their students in digital space. But in that moment, watching myself try to be more-human-than-human using social media, my own theorizing that we simply cannot be 100% real came crashing back at me like  a cresting wave, washing away any doubt I had.

So tl;dr: we’re getting closer and closer to revealing almost all of ourselves online, but as long as we share online through things we rhetorically construct, we will always make our choices– even when we might not be 100% aware– so that we show the audience a very specific picture of who we are. We’re already simulations, Dr. Baudrillard, sir, we’re already removed from the real.

So I say unto you, reader, that I am Phill Alexander, and on this website, my life is an open book.

I am Phill Alexander, and you can see me.

But I am Phill Alexander, and you will never, never, never know me from my words.

You will always know the me I’ve constructed, and while I might be honest to the point of painting a portrait that feels authentic, you’re still witness to one of my rhetorical acts. With every character I type, I’m building something that looks an awful lot like me, but as Ben Folds croons in one of my favorite songs, “did I make me up, or make this face till it stuck? I do the best imitation of myself.”


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