My friend Bryan Crawford posted a marvelous article by Bethlehem Shoals on “Personality Seepage” yesterday that got me revisiting an issue I’d set aside, namely, the presentation of self in virtual life. Beautifully written (unlike most of my muses), the article sums up the increasing difficulty we have in separating our various senses or displays of self thanks to the digital age.
Personality seepage is the consequence of the liminality that occurs (that nether-state between one construct of reality and another), when we put too much of ourselves online at once. With the array of IM windows, boxes, and browsers all crammed together on our laptop, iPad or telephone screens, we see seepage. Personal and professional language become blurred and the lines we draw between one projection and another break down.
Of course, this leads me back to anthropologist Erving Goffman and the theoretical model in anthropology and sociolinguistics rooted in the idea of constructed identity – that we create, or adapt, based on context. As we communicate with people, we share different parts of ourselves, adopting a slightly different personas, so to speak, to fit the context. It is a co-creative act and one that has social and cultural rules that define the interaction. The written word, with no face behind it and no real direct interaction to guide our conversation through non-verbal/non-textual cues exacerbates the situation. Unlike most situations, we have no clear way to define our contexts and we juggle too many conversations at once.
More often than not, the blurring leads to expressions that can be taken as insulting or simply out of place. We inadvertently display a side of our personalities we want to stress with one person but conceal with another. So much for the praise we heap on the notion of authenticity in what we say and do. Authenticity isn’t about being “real,” it’s about a different kind of projection, one that is more about establishing a friendly context. The authenticity of a person is, in truth, the last thing we want.
But why does any of this matter? It matters because of our new love affair with social media monitoring and the ways we build products, services and messages to accommodate the virtual self. We monitor half truths and make decisions based on spurious exchanges in the virtual universe. In other words, Personality Seepage is the frequently the communicative norm in virtual space and that means the people to whom we market or for whom we build are not the people we think we know. It’s not enough to simply watch and “listen” in the social media universe. We have to understand what happens offline as well.