Split personalities

by Steve

Double exposure of men standing on street

I remember as a kid being on holiday and going to some sort of country fête-type thing. On one of the stalls was this guy with a CB radio. I was fascinated by the idea that from this one box this guy could communicate with people from around the world. He asked me to name a country and said he’d try to find someone to talk to from there. I said Tristan da Cunha, and he unsurprisingly couldn’t find anyone. I wasn’t a smart arse, I promise. I just liked Tristan da Cunha for some reason. And I liked the idea of speaking to other people over the radio. I liked the handles they used, the anonymity and the freedom.

Anyway, several years later I was all grown up and had my first proper home computer. I’d dabbled with the internet a bit, but now I had my very own dial-up connection I was free to spend hours ‘surfing’ or at least ambling around the web trying to find something interesting. What really grabbed my attention was the ability to reach out and communicate with people across the world. And while the technology was obviously far more involved, it didn’t seem a world away from CB radio.

I was a little late for the golden age of newsgroups, this was the start of the new millennium, but it was a time when online forums were popular and widespread. Social media has always existed on the internet, it is nothing new, it just gets dressed up in different ways. Forums were great in that if you found the right places you found like-minded people with interesting views and ideas. You might just lurk, listen in, find out the relevant information. Or you might get involved, start having conversations with people across the world. You could make it what you want, or if not, go somewhere else.

And much like the world of CB radio, it was generally pretty anonymous. Everyone had a handle, many were anonymous and even those who weren’t anonymous were still strangers. This was a world unto itself, it wasn’t an extension of the real world.

Nowaways being anonymous online is distrusted and unusual. Everyone is themselves, or a version of themselves. Our online spaces have a great deal of crossover with our real-life spaces. Sometimes we use the likes of Facebook as a surrogate for real friendship – we don’t need to meet up when we can just ‘Like’.

Yet this crossover isn’t any more honest or real than that prior anonymity. It is perhaps less so. It is hard to be truly honest online when you are speaking to real-life friends. It is hard to say what you think when a current or potential employer might be reading. It matters more if someone misreads your tone, or gets upset with what you say.

When we reveal our real identities online we start heading down that slippery slope towards presenting ourselves as a ‘brand’. When the line between the real and online worlds blurs we have to be more careful, more calculating, be more aware of what people might think of us.

When we are ‘public’ online we present the version of ourselves we want people to see. When we are anonymous we present the version of ourselves we want to be. The anonymous communicator is more aspirational in that sense, or at least more willing to take risks and say something more interesting.

Naturally many anonymous communicators then become trolls, as there are no real-life consequences. Yet plenty of people communicating under their real name behave pretty appallingly too. Insisting on real names is no guarantee for civility.

I guess I was thinking about this as I’m kind of in a strange in-between space now. I am semi-anonymous. My full name is on Facebook, but not really anywhere else. My Facebook doesn’t link to here or my Twitter account. A few ‘real-world’ people follow me on Twitter and know that I blog, but that is a reasonably recent thing. I still find it really odd when someone I know asks me about blogging. I don’t feel offended or anything, but I do perhaps feel a little awkward. Maybe that is because when I started using the internet it was easy and standard practice to compartmentalize between the real and the online, and now that isn’t so. Maybe it is because it doesn’t matter if my writing is sup-par if I’m only writing for strangers, but when people I know read it then it matters more. Maybe it is just because writing online is a little dorky.

Either way, I quite like some degree of separation. I don’t want to be that guy who talks about his blog at parties. I don’t want to miss the opportunities to communicate with new people across the world, because I’m concentrating so much on real-life people, yet concentrating so much on those real-life people online that I don’t actually see them, well, in real-life. And maybe I’m still that odd kid wanting to speak to someone in Tristan da Cunha. Yet I’m slowly growing more comfortable with that blurring between the two worlds.

I’m aware that when I say “CB radio” I may, in fact, mean some other sort of public radio system. Apologies if that is the case, and I welcome any comments from radio experts who can set me straight. I am a terrible fact checker.

Image from National Archives of Norway