Avatars & Personas: Good, Bad , Or Somewhere in Between?
This is the 35th edition of Phil Friedman and my He Said He Said cross-border discourse. You can find a number of our most recent posts on our BeBee publisher pages.
JIM: In your last email to me you expressed a concert that the posts you had been seeing from me on social media have been kinda dark and wondered if I was OK. My response to you was that I was actually very happy, and that the darkness you saw was really more a persona than a reflection of my true character.
This has always be something I have been curious about, especially in social media. How many people are actually creating personas and why they do that?
For you and I as writers, this is often necessary. I have spent most of my advertising career and a lot of my hobby-time fiction writing in voices that were not my own.
A lot of the great works of fiction were created in such voices.
I remember when I read Moby Dick by Hermann Melville. He established the persona he was writing in probably better than anyone has ever done it in three simple words, “Call me Ishmael”. For whatever reason, it sucked me right into the book.
The Boomer is a character I created a while back as an experiment, mostly to see if I wrote differently in the third person than I did in the first. And I did. And more than that, I liked it. There’s a freedom to writing that way that’s very alluring.
So, my question to you, Mr. Boat Boy, Esq., is this. Do we always have to be ourselves or is it beneficial to have an avatar or two, to provide you with a different way to communicate?
PHIL: That’s an interesting question, Jiminy Clicket, especially since you well know that I’ve written a fair amount of satire, political and social, using the pseudonym and avatar of Jim Able.
In fact, Jim Able was at one point quite active on LinkedIn and was racking up thousands of views and hundreds of followers — until, that is, he crossed the LI Gods by questioning the veracity of many LinkedIn profiles, especially those of people who claimed to be CEOs ( http://linkedinjustice.blogspot.com ) and was summarily booted off the platform for using a nom de plume and an avatar.
My use of a pseudonym and an avatar accomplished several objectives, although not the one that most people thought of. I did not use Jim Able as a way of hiding who I was, but rather as a means for keeping my more informal and socially irreverent writings separated from my business-oriented social media profiles and isolated from the growing number of Google and other search engine citations for “phil friedman yacht” which were helping significantly with my personal branding and core business marketing.
I didn’t — and still don’t — care if my business contacts found out I was Jim Able; I just didn’t want Jim Able’s satire and irreverent political bombast to turn them off before they learned about my professional and business background and the things I do in the course of my marine industry and small-business consulting.
I mention all this, however, not to rehash the old grievance(s) but to point out that I can answer your question authentically based on my own experience. And the answer is yes, I found that not only did I write in a voice different from my normal persona but found myself thinking differently as I did so. Moreover, when I was writing as Jim Able, I actually felt as though I were a different person.
Which raises a question in response to your question, James, me boy: As writers, we frequently talk about “authenticity” but do you think you can authentically employ more than a single persona?
JIM: Well, to answer your question, you could argue that Jim Able managed to do that successfully and authentically for quite some time. And I believe it was successful because you were never really trying to con anyone into believing that Jim Able was not you.
The other thing I am coming to believe is that social media in general is a bit of a joke, since there really are no hard and fast rules of behaviour. For this reason, you see a countless number of assholes hiding behind some persona or made up name that they think is cool, but which, in reality, simply allows them to gross people out, slander, malign, troll and generally kick up shit without any real fear of banishment, because they can simply come back as something else.
There are a lot of people who create these Jim Able type personas. Back in the day, I used to use the pen name Jake Morrison for a while. He was mostly responsible for poetry, which, at the time, I wasn’t all that good at or confident about. And so, I used that name to kind of hide my own identity. But one day I woke up and thought…for chrissake, dude, stand behind your work, and so Jake was put out to pasture.
As far as authenticity goes, I’m not really sure whether Jim Able was able to achieve the same level of it as Phil Friedman. But he came damns close, and that’s good enough for me. In social media writing I believe that you are really doing yourself a disservice by assuming an alter ego, because (and honestly your Jim Able thing was an exception, and let’s face it, everybody who mattered knew it was you) anything that you do to attempt to hide who you really are, I believe, will be seen as a form of deceit and that’s never good for anybody’s brand, personal or otherwise.
I believe that any professional writer who uses social media as a medium for their message should make sure, at the very least that their readers know who they are and what they believe.
But since you are really the only guy I know who as pulled off two separate personas, I’d be interested in your opinion of that.
PHIL: Look, most of the time, I don’t really know what to make of all of this. What I do know is that adopting different “personas” in different writing situations is often confused in social media circles with faking profiles and acting the troll from behind a mask of anonymity. But they are, in fact, not the same at all.
Using a pseudonym (nom de plume) is a time-honored literary tradition — which is something social media types would know if they ever bothered to read anything serious. Samuel Clemens did it when he wrote and spoke as Mark Twain. David John Moore Cornwell did it when he authored works as John le Carre. And Joanne Rowling (aka J. K. Rowling) did it when she wrote as Robert Galbraith. These particular writers all had different reasons for using pseudonyms and adopting different personas, but those reasons did not include a primary desire to fool or mislead.
Jimmy -san, I think you come pretty close to the heart of the matter when you say “… Jim Able was able to achieve the same level of [authenticity] … as Phil Friedman … because, well. that’s who you are.”
The point is that Jim Able was not a faked profile, intended to shield the user from exposure. Rather, he was an alter-ego — the expression of an aspect of my personality that I usually kept from public view in my published writing.
I guess the upshot of all this is that a lot about personas and pseudonyms depends on the purpose(s) for which they are adopted. If the intention behind the usage is nefarious, then the usage is to be condemned. But if the intention behind the usage falls within the realm of good reason(s), then readers should, I think, accept it at face value.
JIM: Yeah, I agree. Most people are actually just looking for a good takeaway. Maybe an insight or two and the chance to learn something new that they could use themselves. Or maybe just even to be entertained.
One of the big issues that’s getting a lot of attention these days is cyber bullying. And this is one of the places where people hide behind fake names and are protected from blowback by their anonymity. It’s a sad statement on our society in general that there is so much bullying and trolling and just plain cruelty being exhibited.
Last night I wrote a post in LinkedIn about how I was tired of being trolled by alt-righters, and was thinking of cutting back my frequency of Anti-45 posts. This response (I won’t post the name) really speaks volumes about what if going on, not just in America, but the world, right now. Obviously this guy has been seeing a whole lot more than I have.
“I don't know what it must feel like to an outsider looking in, but from an Insider looking out, it is unbelievable. I can't believe the stupidity. I can't believe the depravity. I can't believe the ignorance. I can't believe the hate. I can't believe the bigotry. I can't believe the lies. I can't believe the excess. I can't believe the despair. I can't believe the hopelessness. I can't believe the loss. I can't believe the rage. I can't believe the results of the election. I can't believe the polls. I can't believe a word that this Administration utters. I can't believe what this man gets away with. I can't believe the powerlessness to stop him. I can't believe the weakness of the press. I can't believe the powers of redress. I can't believe who I Have Become. I can't believe how many hours I spend worrying about what's going to happen. I can't believe how much time I spend on my phone looking for news. I can't believe that we are really this divided. I can't believe how much doubt I have about things with which there used to be no doubt. I can't believe how much fear I have. I can't believe that this list will ever end.”
This is the sense of disbelief that is engendered in good people, as a result of watching people spew venom, mostly anonymously, on social media. It is truly weakening the fabric of society. And I know that the majority of this simply would not exist if not for the anonymity that social media offers.
But I guess we have to take the bad with the good. For every Mark Twain. There’s a DeathToLibtards. It sucks. But it is what it is.
Jim Murray is an experienced advertising and marketing professional. He has run his own business (Onwords & Upwords), since 1989 after a 20 year career as a senior creative person in major Canadian & international advertising agencies. He is a communication strategist, writer, art director, broadcast producer, mildly opinionated op/ed blogger & beBee Brand Ambassador.
Jim lives in St Catharines Ontario and is a partner at Bullet Proof Consulting. www.bulletproofconsulting.ca
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