Is Your Avatar Giving You an Identity Crisis?

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How do you see yourself? No, really. We each have shortcomings and body hangups and things we'd like to exchange for a newer model. And most of the time we'd prefer not to expose our naked physical selves to the world. But what about digging below the surface like examining your intellect or your emotions or your accomplishments. How do you look now? Happy with the way things are going? Undoubtedly we're all a work in progress. But we're probably much more acutely aware of how we look in a mirror than how we appear to the outside world. Or put another way, we may be in denial over our inner faults and more plugged in to the "first impressions" of appearance. We just sort of are who we are, and that's that, right?

OK, enough psycho-babble. The point is to lead in to how we view our online selves. By that I mean the fine-tuning we do to portray our lives to those who might "know" us on social networks. In essence: our avatars.

Let's start with those 140 characters. When Twitter hit the scene in a big way last year it asked users a simple question: "What's happening?" There were the early adopters who enjoyed telling people they were ironing their socks or rearranging their paper clip collection. And we made fun of them. We yelled a collective: "Who cares??" Then more and more people (myself included) got enamored with the idea of having "followers" and telling those followers exactly what we thought about some product or where we were going or how we were so incredibly bummed out that Paula Abdul wouldn't be a judge on American Idol anymore. (Breathe, Daniel, I'm sure Ellen DeGeneres will be fine.)

But suddenly we started defining ourselves by the number of followers we had and clamored for more. Gaining a follower for me would be exciting. What will this person think of me? Who are they exactly? But I got sucked in to the trap of wanting that number to go up and not really considering the actual connections being made (or not). If you have a Twitter account then I bet you know exactly how many followers you have within a small margin. But what do you really know about any of them? And the more people who "listened" to us the more excited we got. Except that it doesn't seem to me like many people are actually hearing anything. Sure, we clicked on links and made occasional comments. But for many users it quickly turned into a competition-- who could Tweet the wittiest comment about Tiger Woods? Who would be first to tell their followers that Michael Jackson was dead? Who was having the MOST AWESOME FABULOUS FUN TIME AT SOME EXOTIC LOCATION??

Look, I don't mean to make it sound like we shouldn't share our lives with people we care about or vice versa. Remember, I'm not anti-communication. I'm seeking the exact opposite-- meaningful communication and making technology work the right way for your life. It's all relative. But at some point many people get carried away with sites like Twitter and perhaps more concerned about how their fellow followers viewed their feed (aka personal story) as opposed to their real and actual and present life. And maybe the definition of the two began to blur. It certainly did in my case. I can remember getting a bit anxious about what to post. I felt the need to be funny but still professional. That often ended up being boring and no one wants to follow a dud. So what would I say? Sometimes it was easy and obvious when I was working on something interesting but other times it was just a chore.

When I'd broadcast what I was working on or where I was going, I'd get this tinge of guilt like I shouldn't be bragging about myself. But I didn't listen to that voice and soldiered on with my Tweets. I kept imagining my followers (866 of them, you'll recall) reading about me and therefore wanted to put my best binary face forward. But that's not real. What was anyone learning and what did they want to know? It began to become more difficult. Over time I felt like I was just a shill for my job. I felt compelled to "put myself out there." Is that what people wanted to hear?

Sure, I'd also link to other science or technology stories and some followers appreciated that connection. I have no problem with that. But at some point even that felt unfulfilling for me. I did enjoy reading some Twitter feeds and news sites can work like a wire service on it, which is clearly useful. But I fell into a constant state of buffering all that data. Buffering. Buffering. That's when the digital diet kicked in.

How then do we make sense of all the noise? There are tools built in to the software that actually allow controls or you could always trust someone else with your password and use it sparingly. This is from Twitter's site in answer to a FAQ about whether it's all just to much information:

"The result of using Twitter to stay connected with friends, relatives, and coworkers is that you have a sense of what folks are up to but you are not expected to respond to any updates unless you want to. This means you can step in and out of the flow of information as it suits you and it never queues up with increasing demand of your attention. Additionally, users are very much in control of whose updates they receive, when they receive them, and on what device. For example, we provide settings for scheduling Twitter to automatically turn off at dinnertime and users can switch off Twitter updates at any point. Simply put, Twitter is what you make of it -- receive a lot of information about your friends, or just a tiny bit. It's up to them."

Come on - how many people do you know who minimize the frequency of their Twitter updates? Quite the contrary. It's a nice idea but we seem to crave the attention and the opportunity that brevity coupled with broadcasting provide. Our ego gets a boost. And it all adds more bricks to our virtual foundation. Or more building blocks to our avatars. Each Tweet is like a tiny chapter of our online self. It becomes a chronology, a public diary, and a road map for who we (virtually) are.

For me, the idea of taking away that foundation felt like I wasn't moving forward. Deep down I feared that my avatar would die. I was ultimately spending more time worrying about which Twitter update best encapsulated my mood or my adventures or my SELF. And I was sacrificing part of my real self for my avatar. When I realized that-- well, the first step is to realize that you have a problem. And here I am. Again, I want to reiterate that of course not everyone gets so caught up with social networks but just remember there is a pause button. It's always there.

Of course, you could argue that blogs aren't much different because it's "all about me" and just more spouting of opinion. Perhaps. But there is arguably more introspection when it comes to blogs and less of a need to have "followers."

Some blogs get written without many (if any) people reading a single word. Nonetheless they can be a productive exercise. It seems to me that many people drifted away from blogs when a numeric value could be attached to your readers (e.g. followers or friends)- translating into a direct reference to your "audience" and people who perceived you in some way. Maybe instead of imagining yourself or your "followers" as people summed up in 140 characters, remember the last time you had coffee with them or watched a movie together or shared a laugh. And if you've never experienced those real-life activities with most of your followers, and you see signs that segments of your personal life isn't as fulfilling, then it may be time to ask if your avatar is giving you an identity crisis. In any case, before I turn the page for this posting, I would actually like to apologize to bloggers everywhere.

In my original posting about my "disconnect" I asked whatever happened to blogs. Well, here's one of the best responses from someone who goes by "Element22":

"They're alive and well within a strong community of independent writers who value the spoken and written form of communication."


Next time: my Facebook self-portrait. Until then, stay connected.