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The Public Self

Posted on 10 July 2011

Earlier this week, I was doing a story on a “Tweet Up.”  That’s when a bunch of Twitter users who may have never met each other in person get together for face-to-face conversations. They’ve been around for a while but are new to Prince George (this was the second one as far as anyone seems to know).

There were a wide variety of people there including some local politicians. I asked them about the challenges of maintaining a public online identity while already being a public figure. In other words, how do they successfully integrate the different hats they wear offline – politician, parent, business-owner, etc – into a cohesive online identity that doesn’t upset the voting public? One of them told me their approach was the same one they took to campaigning- be honest about who you are in all your iterations. After the interview, they asked me my own thoughts- where was online/offline identity convergence headed. My answer was this:

People will be more forgiving of public figures when they’re all public figures, too.

I didn’t really expand on that, but I’d like to try and do that now. To support my theory, I’m going to make some gross overgeneralizations. Here goes.

Prior to social media, the challenge of leading a public life (as a politician or celebrity) and a private one (as the person a politician or celebrity is when the cameras are off and they’re among family or close friends) was limited to relatively few. Your average person didn’t really have a concept of the public vs private self because they were, at all times, a private person. They switched between husband/father/son/employee/drinking buddy depending on who they were with, but in an offline world there was very little chance of those worlds colliding in a way that made maintaining a cohesive identity difficult. So perhaps people were a little less understanding when a public figure failed to maintain their public persona at all times, because the language and nuances of identity hadn’t entered the mainstream.

Today, if the statistics are correct, the majority of people in the developed world have public personas. They’re called “Facebook profiles.” Through them, everyone acts as their own PR person. They decide which TV shows they want to publicly declare they watch, which photos they share of themselves, and which thoughts they broadcast. Just as importantly, they decide which ones they leave out- what aspects of your private self don’t get mentioned in your public identity- and why? In every new social network you join you are asked “Who are you?” Eveytime you log into Facebook and Twitter you are asked “What are you doing?” And, implicitly, “What portion of the world would you like to share this information with?” Plus, there’s the everlooming paparazzi- friends with cameraphones at parties who may snap a photo of you looking stupid which, if your privacy settings are set up in a certain way, could be shared with your boss or your kids, or, even, the people who you will one day want to vote for you as you run for local government.

There were non-social media precursors to this, definitely, but the last five years have amped up the risks as well as the conversation surrounding identity and privacy. I was introduced to all of this as a university student and adult. I have cousins who basically don’t know what life was like without social networks and, whether they can articulate it or not, the challenges of maintaining a public persona as you grow and change as a person.

Can you imagine life if conversations you had as a pre-teen with friends were archived online? This is what they’re dealing with. And the odds of that many teenagers coming of age online without making a few digitally archived moves that they will retrospectively be less than proud of seem pretty low. That being the case, I think they’ll be less likely to judge someone with a picture of a beer funnel or who changes their political views as they move from high school to university to adulthood, because they’ll have done, if not the same, than something similar. To put things more crassly, when anyone can dig up SOME form of dirt on anyone else, the little bits of dirt probably won’t matter as much.

Like I said, I haven’t sat down and come up with some grand theory of this. There may be any number of flaws in my thoughts. And I definitely can’t say whether it will be good or bad if my prediction is correct. But here it goes, out into the digital archives with my name on it. Just like so many things with so many people’s names go out every day. We’ll see where this takes us.

Filed under: social media

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