In your original email to me, you mentioned how it was possible to be different people online – it sounded like you were exploring various fun imaginary personalities. Can you tell me a bit more about that?
Sure. There wasn’t a whole lot of consideration that went into this, at least initially. I liked responding to people in various unusual ways, and seeing how they’d react.
I think alter egos are an innate human thing.
I’ve always thought language patterns are fascinating. Sometimes I’d respond in some Dickensian-sounding English style, sometimes I’d try to sound like a typical illiterate troll.
This was the first time I’d ever had the chance to come off as someone else. Because honestly, this was the first time I’d ever been anonymous. It’s weird. I think alter egos are an innate human thing.
I had almost no experience with the internet before college. I didn’t get it at home until a year before I went to college, and I didn’t know anyone else who did what I did—it wasn’t like I belonged to some trolling organization or anything.
This was in a college forum?
Yes, it was called the Daily Jolt. It was the closest thing there was to a social network before Facebook. Ever heard of something called Community Memory?
This was a project that showed up in Berkeley, back in the 1970s. It was a public computer terminal that anyone could post messages to.
And one of the first people to use it was an unknown person who called himself “Dr Benway”. He didn’t use it for a bulletin board, the way the people who set up the project thought it would be used—he’d post various rants and screeds where he was just being creative.
I don’t know if he was the grandfather of all forum trolls, but he was definitely one of the first. I thought this was fascinating, because I wasn’t inspired by him, and he wasn’t inspired by anyone—he was just some guy who realized that he could be anyone he wanted when no one could see his face.
And he adopted this bizarre personality, this whole way of talking that served no purpose whatsoever other than just being something he thought was interesting. And then thirty years later, I did the same thing.
You don’t want to be too weird because the people who you rely on might not get it, or think it’s stupid.
It must be liberating to have that kind of creative freedom over one’s own self expression.
I think it is. Because most of the time, we’re inextricably attached to who we are. We’ve got stuff at stake: reputations, friendships, etc. You don’t want to be too weird because the people who you rely on might not get it, or think it’s stupid.
On social networks, you have to have followers before anyone’s going to see what you write…in order to get enough of an audience that it’s worth it, you really have to market yourself.
Do you still get to play with identity in that way these days?
No, I don’t. That ended with the Jolt. Part of this had to do with the fact that I’d graduated, and I didn’t have as much time, but I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that the Jolt was a special kind of place that invited this kind of playing around. I’ve never since encountered a social network where I’d feel comfortable doing something like that.
I think a key part of this is the difference between today’s social network and a forum. On forums, you don’t have to have followers. You’re posting in a public space—everyone sees it. If you want an audience, you’ve got one right off the bat.
On social networks, you have to have followers before anyone’s going to see what you write. And the problem with that is that all of these people probably know who you are. This isn’t always the case—some of my favorite Twitter comedians are completely anonymous—but most of the time, you’re starting from zero. And in order to get enough of an audience that it’s worth it, you really have to market yourself.
Facebook has its own mini-forums—the comments areas of public pages—but that’s not the same. The Daily Jolt forum was a freewheeling, general-purpose forum. Anything went over there. You wanted to be an aristocrat from Dickensian England? Fine. And it was mostly used by bored students who appreciated someone being weird at three in the morning. Having alternate personalities didn’t seem inappropriate or out of place.
But Facebook pages/groups are usually topic-specific. You can’t show up on Bernie Sanders’s Facebook page and expect people to appreciate attempts at improv. Unless you’re pretending to be Trump or Clinton. Which I have never done, and never would do.
The Jolt felt like a dorm: you go there, hang out, meet weird people, have weird conversations—anything went… Today’s online communities feel more restricting somehow.
First reason that comes to my mind is that political spoofs are a dime a dozen, and you can’t be creative if you’re pretending to be a real person.
But more, I think I’ve grown beyond it. I think messing around like that was a product of suddenly having something new that I hadn’t played with.
And as vague as this is going to sound, the whole vibe is different. The Jolt felt like a dorm: you go there, hang out, meet weird people, have weird conversations—anything went, like I said. Today’s online communities feel more restricting somehow.
If we were having [this conversation] in person, I’d probably start to say something and then break off, or hesitate. It might take a few tries to put together something that looks like a smooth, coherent sentence here.
You mentioned that these days you’ve noticed your online self remains very different to your offline self…
It is. It’s just not something I intend. Today, online isn’t a mask so much as a filter. Certain aspects of myself come across very strongly online, and others don’t as much.
Like the conversation we’re having now: I sound very direct and sure of myself. But if we were having it in person, I’d probably start to say something and then break off, or hesitate. It might take a few tries to put together something that looks like a smooth, coherent sentence here.
I think overall, if you interact with me enough online, you get a good sense of who I am offline. I don’t pretend to be anyone else. I say the same stuff. But again, it’s more that online hides some things and emphasizes others. Mask vs. filter, like I said.
Although I’ll admit that, as I said, I think I come off better online than off. Which bothers me, for a variety of reasons.
It feels dishonest, like I’m misrepresenting myself. Like, I think I give the impression of being cleverer than I am. People who have never met me think I’m funny because I make jokes on their Twitter posts.
Or again, if I’m having a discussion, I have time to think carefully about what I want to say: edit it, look up facts, etc. Which makes me seem more coherent than I’d probably be in real life.
I worry that the image I’m projecting is of someone who’s more outgoing and confident, so when people who I’ve never met actually meet me, they’ll notice a difference between who they thought I was and how I come across in person. I think I said in the initial email that it feels like I’m building up expectations I can’t live up to.
The problem is that offline, even with all its limitations, is seen as more “real”.
What if the online you is who you actually are and offline you is the limited version?
That’s a great point, and it underscores why a lot of people find the internet liberating because of its limitations. Basically, it removes all the real-life limitations that inhibit people expressing themselves fully, and makes it possible to reveal less obvious qualities.
I’ve benefited more from the web more than any other technology because my best aspects really aren’t immediately obvious. I don’t carry around a portfolio of my artwork. I tend to be somewhat quieter in person. The web lets me share everything else: illustrations, design portfolio, writing, creativity.
You’re absolutely right that I have more opportunities to show who I am online than offline. The problem is that offline, even with all its limitations, is seen as more “real”.
I think most of us—definitely myself included—find it very hard to look below the surface of people. If I interact with someone who’s very quiet and awkward, I find myself subconsciously assuming that the limitations I see in real life are the person’s limitations, period. Even though I know first-hand that that is almost always not the case.
And then there’s the whole social stigma of being more of an “online” person than an “offline” person. People who function better online than off are typically characterized as stunted, poorly socialized basement-dwellers dependent on their parents (and notorious sites like 4chan and Reddit hardly discredit that stereotype). It’s frustrating to me because, even though I probably am more of an online person, I wouldn’t want to admit that.
I think there’s a new generation of “online person”, and maybe a more palatable one: people who use their online presence as a tool for professional advancement, which I think is considered more socially acceptable than just socializing. As a designer, I know a lot of people who are very open about their online personas: they link to all of their various portfolios, Instagram accounts, Twitter accounts, sometimes even Facebook. I guess where I’m going with this is that it’s getting easier to make your online presence look more an augmentation rather than a crutch. Which helps me, since I can come off as a connected professional bolstering my personal brand, etc etc, rather than, say, a poorly socialized basement dweller.
There’s a point at which Facebook feels like a really intense Thanksgiving dinner.
Do you mainly use your online presence for personal branding and Twitter jokes these days? What sort of things do you talk about with others online?
It really depends. If I’m on Twitter, I’ll discuss anything from politics to design/tech, although I consider my Twitter account part of my professional side, so I’m less likely to get into any major discussions on there. As far as jokes, I might do that when responding to someone I know, but again, I usually focus more on professional stuff.
So yeah, I’d say my online presence is heavily weighted towards my professional side these days. I’m more open when discussing things with friends on Facebook, but I don’t do that anywhere else. And lately, I’ve been considering using Facebook as more of an outlet for my artistic experiments than discussions.
I think a lot of it is that I’m so damned sick of politics these days. I can’t remember the last time an election year wore me out this much. There’s a point, also, at which there just doesn’t seem to be anything else to say. I don’t feel like I learn a great deal from the discussions on there. I know some really smart people, so it’s not a quality-of-intellect problem—it’s just that there’s a point at which Facebook feels like a really intense Thanksgiving dinner. You love all these people, but you really wish someone would change the subject and talk about something that isn’t crazy and polarized and demoralizing.
I’d honestly planned to ditch Facebook entirely—just leave it forever—but it really does help me stay in low-grade contact with people I care about. A few days ago, I was thinking that maybe I could enjoy it more if I really did just change the subject: avoid politics entirely and post the artistic stuff I’m doing. I’m working on a system where I can do this entirely remotely, without having to log into Facebook and look at my wall.
It’s not a joke or an exaggeration to say that Facebook is addictive: it absolutely is.
A system? What do you mean by that?
Right now, the problem with posting to Facebook is that I have to look at Facebook to do it. I hate looking at Facebook. It’s not a joke or an exaggeration to say that Facebook is addictive: it absolutely is. One of the reasons I seriously considered closing my account is that I was wasting too much time on it.
There are web apps that let you schedule posts for various social media services. They’re usually used by social media managers and marketers, but in this case, it occurred to me that maybe I could just upload work and have the app post it for me. Basically, I’d use it as an intermediary so I can share stuff without having to look at Facebook.
I have to wonder if the atmosphere I’m looking for had a lot more to do with that specific time and crowd than it did with the design of the site.
You talked about today’s online communities being more restrictive – and also mentioned some of the difficulties you have with Facebook. Do you think we can return to those silly creative community spaces we used to have before Facebook and others came along?
I’ve wondered that for years. Honestly, I think that probably already exists somewhere, and I just don’t know about it. I almost never use Reddit, although some of the Reddit forums I’ve seen remind me of the Daily Jolt forum. I know that people have also described Yik Yak in similar terms. I think that the Jolt was what it was because the people who used it were college students. Odder hours + college-student environment means a different kind of atmosphere than a network where everyone’s ten years older and regularly employed. And it was also a pretty limited community: you’re talking to kids who went to that specific school.
I don’t know. Now that I’m talking about it, I have to wonder if the atmosphere I’m looking for had a lot more to do with that specific time and crowd than it did with the design of the site.
I’ve heard from early users that Twitter felt a lot like that, right after it launched. Because most of the people who used it were web nerds and professionals. You didn’t have misogynist hordes and racist uncles—nobody knew about it, or cared. 140 characters? Who the hell wants to communicate like that? I think a lot of the appeal was the cliquish nature: you’re surrounded by lots of other people like you.
Same as the Daily Jolt. So I think any creative space of the kind we’re looking for is going to have to (1) be limited to a small group of like-minded people (similar interests, similar place in life), and (2) make it easy to interact without having to acquire a following.
Which is why I mentioned Reddit. It has a somewhat checkered reputation, but I get the sense that there are places like that on there.
I spoke to a UX designer very early on in the project, who talked a lot about how offline, how a space is designed can really change how you interact in it, eg an intimate room can foster conversation, while a big echoey hall might be more difficult to interact with strangers in.
That’s a good point, and I think that was one of the cool things about the Jolt: it had its issues, but it didn’t engender any kind of dominant behavior: self-promotion, memes, etc. It really was mostly about random discussions.
I also think that community behavior can snowball into things the designers didn’t anticipate or intend. Depending on who uses it.
She talked about how many online spaces aren’t designed well. but perhaps in addition we have changed how we engage as well…
I think that’s entirely true—that designers can try to influence, through look and feel, what direction community behavior takes. But I also think that community behavior can snowball into things the designers didn’t anticipate or intend. Depending on who uses it.
Like Facebook: everyone uses it. You have people who post substantive things, and you have people who post videos of cats, and you have people who post both. But in general, Facebook is used by so many people that—at the risk of sounding elitist—it’s the easier-to-digest sound and fury that tends to go viral.
For me, the appeal of a social network is inversely proportional to the number of people who use it.
There’s another social network I use, called Medium. I’ve been reading it ever since it launched. In the beginning, it was really cool. People posted really good stuff. I’d never seen anything like it. It was like a really cool blogging platform. And then writers noticed that it was the inspiring life-lesson “Seven Things To Do Before Breakfast” stuff that got all the likes and responses. Now it’s like 90% preachy self-help stuff and self-righteous open letters on various things, since that’s what gets shared. It feels like Facebook, except with longer posts.
I think what happened is that it’s a victim of its own success: people thought it was cool, and the community got huge, and the quality of the content went down. I realize how snobby and hipsterish this sounds: “Oh heavens, it’s the unwashed masses at the gates, there goes the neighborhood!” But honestly, at least for me, the appeal of a social network is inversely proportional to the number of people who use it.
And I wonder if the solution is that at some point, we have to carve out our own sub-communities within that larger community: sub-Reddits, or Medium publications focused on the more interesting stuff, or private Facebook pages—whatever it takes to make the community small enough and specific enough and intimate enough to be worthwhile again.
Ever heard of Ello?
I use it every day. I think you either like it or don’t see the point. It’s mainly geared towards artists and designers.
They got some fame when they first launched—they were billing themselves as a less creepy alternative to Facebook—and everyone tried it for a day or two. But they aren’t Facebook, and there were still some rough edges, so then a lot of people left and it looked like they’d suffer the same fate as Google+. But Ello was able to pitch themselves as a niche community specifically for artists and creative types. I haven’t had the interactions on Ello that I remember from the Jolt, but they definitely have a cool vibe.
It’s not really about discussion so much as sharing interesting work. I haven’t noticed any predominant kind of usage, like memes or self-promotion. It fits what I’m talking about in that it’s a relatively limited community of people who are pretty similar in terms of interests/abilities. But they’re not really designed for written creativity, and they’re a follower-based community, not a forum. Honestly, I think an Ello-like community in a forum format would come pretty close to the kind of place we were talking about.
Oh hey. I almost forgot. I know about something that’s even closer to what we’re talking about. Ever heard of Prompt? It’s an email-based community.
The idea is that every day, they email you a writing prompt. It’s chosen from suggestions they get, and it could be anything: word, sentence, lyric, you name it. They publish all the responses they get in the next email. It’s one of the coolest online-community projects I’ve seen recently.
If it weren’t for the somewhat wonky implementation—emails are a little oddly formatted, and you submit replies through a Google form—it would be the closest thing to the Jolt that I’ve seen.
Because again, it’s a small community of weird people who have similar interests. Your mom isn’t reading it. Nobody’s selling anything, or follower-whoring. And everyone’s anonymous. The idea is to do weird stuff that isn’t associated with who you normally are. It’s so cool.
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