Identity itself is an outdated concept. We are not some static and immutable list of descriptors and qualities. We are flexible and under constant change—we’re all in perpetual beta.¹
Several weeks ago I made a very conscious decision to convert an avatar I had been using in the Tumblr community–which if you’re not familiar with, is a blogging platform that sits somewhere between WordPress and Twitter–from an “anonymous” image of the Three Jewels, which I also use here, to a personal photograph. I had already tested out the personal photo on Twitter, but that is a community I am less invested in–having only opened an account in November of last year. It came with some surprise that I received a lot of negative feedback for this action. Even as explicitly as, “Ahhh I miss the old sharanam icon! Why did I become so attached that I have a bad reaction to this person instead of the symbol it was previously?” Extraordinary (and unfortunately, more hurtful than I would have liked). On the other hand, it also induced a lot of curiosity in my Tumblr which hadn’t been there before. I’m not a total stats junkie, but as a way of understanding better the social component of blogging, I do keep tabs on where traffic comes from and what content readers are most compelled by. Changing my avatar to a personal photo drove readers who normally only look at my posts in a feed reader (or Tumblr dashboard) to my site and even further, to my WordPress blog for the first time really. This was equally fascinating, though more expected.
Blogging, tweeting, and social networking in general are inherently social. In most cases, people want to know about the people they are interacting with, in as many dimensions as possible. I had hung on to some thin veil of anonymity for a long time, as both a habitual holdover from early days of Livejournaling, etc., and as a defense mechanism–avoiding vulnerability. When I started this rather personal blog I didn’t really know who I was writing for (other than myself), but mostly it was intended as a way of explaining what was happening with me to those in my real life who were interested, since I made some pretty abrupt life-changing decisions. In the early posts, a few close friends and my family were the only ones reading. Now, the audience is entirely different. In fact, almost no one from my real life reads these days other than my sister (who’s grown into it as she’s seen my life change for the better) and my teacher. Attempted anonymity was a total joke when it was the first audience and now it just leaves a bad taste.
A post by Barry Briggs of Ox Herding really impacted me in this regard.
As individuals, we are responsible for offering genuine intimacy to the world. We are responsible for bringing our whole selves to each moment. We are responsible for insuring that others have the opportunity to perceive us clearly. We are responsible for the effects of our intentions and actions upon others. We accept these responsibilities when we commit to a path of awakening…Anonymity…undermines the work of responsibility – which is, after all, the essence of the Buddha Dharma.²
This made me think hard about the relationship between anonymity and accountability. I realized it was becoming more and more of a cop out to hide my name behind an online moniker. Certainly one of the reasons I’ve held onto a bit of anonymity here was a desire to hide in Google searches, in case old lovers were curious, a similar concern of one of the commenters at Barry’s post. But, what, do I not want to reveal…happiness?
Though it’s a work in process (still sharanam typing here), authenticity has become more and more the name of the game for me, and blogging and social media a form of practice–therefore totally inseparable. In the early days of social media, in my mid twenties, I took great pains to paint images of myself as witty or whatever it might be. Through a deep commitment to contemplative practice, those masks are continually being peeled away (with love and affection, as tinytruths reminds me), as are all the layers of false self that keep us from being who we really are.
In the mainstream social media world, there is a debate currently going on around an anonymous model and an integrated, authentic model of online identity. Facebook is leading the argument for integration–and clearly has a lot of vested interest in things continuing to move in that direction. Even Facebook’s subtle shifts and changes have affected my behavior online. In particular, I saw how a new option to interact with people who “like” my Facebook page as me, the individual, was something I genuinely welcomed. Similarly, Facebook’s efforts to streamline information in the news feed (what they deem relevant based on shared friends and interests, as opposed to real-time), and the plethora of business pages in my network, have enabled me to be more and more specialized–because the technology itself is helping to bring me together with those who are genuinely interested in what the other is sharing.
As an avid social media user, I can say from experience that it seems increasingly clear to me that I cannot have more than one online identity, and that it does not serve me or anyone to remain anonymous. Online, I am drawn to those who allow themselves to be vulnerable and to those who engage in meaningful, personalized dialogue, by way of comments in various platforms. Recently, I also noted how much more connected I feel when someone uses my first name–especially if emphasized, i.e., more than just in the greeting–in our interactions. And as a Buddhist practitioner, it has become virtually untenable for me to be anything but integrated in my online activities. Choosing to present myself, honestly, openly–weaknesses and all–is hard, and particularly when opinions or views creep in, things that smack of politics, I feel so vulnerable. Also, I could fear these activities will impact me professionally at some point, since there will be an archive of all these vulnerabilities. But honestly, I’m not worried about it. I’m more interested in being real. As the opening quote suggests–our “selves” are in constant flux. This doesn’t provide any more incentive to hide, in my opinion, only less. While there may indeed be a time and place for anonymity–as in Alcoholics Anonymous, or for teenagers who are struggling with their sexual identity and are looking for support–in the virtual communities I frequent and engage in, there is absolutely no argument for anything but authenticity and, as such, full responsibility for my thoughts, words, and deeds.
I hope I’m not the only geek around here. Please share your thoughts on this important subject!
1. Haydn Sweterlitsch, “Authenticity vs. Anonymity: Users are who they are”, March 17, 2011
2. Barry Briggs, “Anonymity”, February 7, 2011
Additional mainstream perspectives:
Facebook, Discourse & Identity, Stowe Boyd, March 16, 2011
To Identify or Not to Identify–That Is the Question, Center for Democracy & Technology, March 8, 2011
Why Facebook Is Not the Cure for Bad Comments, Matthew Ingram, March 7, 2011
The Continuing Relevance of Online Anonymity, Joanne McNeill, September 19, 2010
Anonymity & Online Identity, from a website for the suite of courses taught by Elizabeth Stark and Brad Rosen, Yale Law & Technology
Some recent, relevant ruminations from the digital sangha:
EDIT 4/7: Jennifer Cobb, Can We Love the Stranger on Facebook? “The knowledge and expression of our most unique selves requires a commitment to authenticity, to knowing who we are in the most profound sense. This is hard work, even among friends. But it is when we encounter the other in their unique authenticity that we are enlarged.”
Marguerite Manteau-Rao, The Gift of Kind Authenticity, “What is the point of being untrue to oneself, and pretending? How can one relate out of a facade? How can one have a heart to heart connection when one’s heart is hidden by a camouflage of automatic behaviors? How can one live this moment, tied by concepts of how one should be instead?”
Kristen Stancik, Your Life As a Project, It’s simple: “Be present. Be honest.”
Lynette Genju Monteiro, Sentimentally So, “This is a personal space where I get to be a ‘me’ that is different from the hour-by-hour piecework shrinkology I am/do/be everyday.”
Jaye Seiho Morris, Efficiency and Authenticity, “It’s much more efficient to be authentic, rather than project something out into my life that’s an illusion and not who I really am.”
If you haven’t seen it yet, do take the time to watch Brené Brown‘s TedX Talk on vulnerability and authenticity. It’s great.