Honesty and the Online Persona

After last week’s very personal piece, most of the comments I received were not on the blog. Instead, most comments came back to me via Twitter, many on direct messages, so that they can only (in theory!) be seen between me and the other party.

Two of these intrigued me greatly. One was from someone who occasionally corresponds via social media, but who I first met in real life. The second is someone who I have only ever corresponded with via social media but who I have not met face-to-face.

The first of these responses stated that they there slightly surprised and wouldn’t have guessed that what I wrote was what I thought, given what they knew of me from our earlier interactions, both online and face-to-face. The latter, however, said that it came as no surprise and that it reminded them much of a post I wrote a couple of years ago on love and marriage, especially in terms of the tone of self-deprecation used.

This renewed my thinking about the honesty of the digital life. Does the image we project into the virtual world differ significantly from the rest of our lives? To think about this instantly calls into question what it means to be honest. To take an example, you will note that I don’t really talk about my work here. I certainly don’t disclose the name of my employer, my colleagues or the location of my office. That’s because I try to keep work separate from the rest of my life. I may tweet from time to time that it’s been a busy time at work, but not much beyond that. Yet between Monday to Friday, that’s where I am for the majority of my waking hours. Does this separation of different parts of my life mean that I lack honesty?

I would contend that it doesn’t. You may disagree; if so, feel free to do so in the comments. Honesty, to me, does not mean blurting out every thought. There are some things that it really isn’t helpful to say and there are some that we have to take to the grave with us. There can be kindness in silence, though it does create a dilemma if someone asks you to explain something when you know that to do so fully and frankly could be very hurtful to them. What would you do in that situation? Would you speak the brutal truth, or dodge around the issue? I’ve tried both approaches in the past and I wouldn’t say either have worked well. To use a recent analogy, was it necessary for news editors to show the graphic detail behind the Woolwich murder? I regret having seen the early broadcasts which were unedited; I think the news could have been reported adequately without seeing the bloodstained hands or the body in the road. So it is, I feel, about full disclosure of our lives. There is good reason not to include everything but this does not in any way inhibit my opinion about someone’s honesty.

I wrote a little about anonymity some time ago though I confess I did employ the term ‘anonymity’ on occasions when ‘pseudonymity’ (is that a real word?) might be more appropriate. If my English is not quite tip-top, I hope that’s clear enough. After all, it will not have escaped your notice that this blog is pseudonymous, though my identity is hardly a closely guarded secret. Just as most know that the Church Sofa is called Andy and that Cranmer is a failed Conservative politician called Adrian, I think most of you know my real name. I only choose not to put it on here because of the work issue alluded to above. Also, the pseudonym I use, Sipech, is far more unusual than my actual name (I am also fairly consistent in using the mouse avatar – see here for more info); so, using it consistently across platforms, my digital footprint is easier to trace. It’s not quite unique, I know there are a few other web users who use it, including the annoying Twitter user who took @sipech before I joined; I would have liked to have a shorter handle than @TheAlethiophile. I couldn’t even have @Alethiophile as that was pinched by someone called Tom who barely uses the account, which irks me somewhat.

Over the bank holiday weekend, I witnessed a little spat on Twitter (the most useful and productive form of discussion, I’m sure you’ll agree) between Cranmer and Mehdi Hasan where Mehdi criticised Cranmer for not blogging in his own name and for referring to himself in the 3rd person. While the latter annoys me, it still strikes me as odd that a pseudonym could be offensive. Surely the value of what someone writes is to be found in what they write, not necessarily in knowing the name of the writer. If not, you run the risk of falling foul of the argument from authority.

I may choose to edit what I put online, whether it be because it is too personal, it concerns work (including issues of confidentiality and insider trading) or if it may be offensive to some people. So if you think I’m an inoffensive little mouse, then know this: my tongue is well-bitten at times. Indeed, one of the reasons I prefer online interactions is the non-immediacy of them. If I take 2 minutes to think about what I might reply to someone in 140 characters, that’s acceptable on line. But in a face to face conversation, such a protracted silence is bound to be uncomfortable for both parties. Even then, I have a backspace key and can edit before I hit ‘publish’. That doesn’t mean I don’t regret anything I publish online; I still make mistakes, but fewer than I otherwise might. The tongue can be very vicious and I can be prone to a sharp response, particularly given a heated discussion. If the tongue is an organ of fire, then online interactions (or indeed, old fashioned letter writing) provide a little protection which can go a long way to preventing harm and hurt.

So those are my thoughts, what are yours?

  • Would you rather someone be brutally honest with you or would you prefer they conceal some truths out of kindness?
  • Is a pseudonym, nomatter how consistently used, an obstacle to believing what someone says, or even from forming a kind of friendship with them?
  • Does your online persona match your offline personality? If not, which is closer to the ‘real’ you.

2 responses to “Honesty and the Online Persona

  1. Hmm, I think my online persona differs from my offline one in that I’m more articulate in writing. So there are lots of opinions I wouldn’t trust myself to put across clearly (and non-offensively!) in a conversation but am much more confident to explain in text form. For example I’m quite at home in an online discussion on “serious” topics but in real life I’d probably listen to others more than I’d contribute. Other than that, I don’t know. I guess it would be up to those who know me both online and offline to judge whether I come across differently in each…

  2. Really enjoyed reading that, and want to read more when I’m not trying to finish my book, but yes, every form of conversation is naturally “edited” – being online doesn’t mean it should be “brutally honest” for sure, and taking that pause before publish = very healthy! I have no problems with pseudonyms so long as everyone who uses them doesn’t use them to “hide behind”, and is aware that it’s not possible to be entirely anonymous – so write in the expectation of being “found out” – for want of a better term! If it’s a consistent identity… then that’s good!