What are we *really* like? (Thoughts on meeting people you know from online in real life.)

In the aftermath of the ScienceBloggers' assault on Manhattan, Mark Chu-Carroll put up a nice post on the ways in which bloggers' real-life manner seemed to match or depart from their online personae.

Maybe philosophy's to blame, but I think there's a deep and interesting question here.

Mark writes:

It's quite an odd experience in its way; between our blogs, and our back-channel forums, we've become a tight-knit community, and the people there were my friends, even though I'd never seen them before.

And yet, as is clear from Mark's blogger-specific observations, there are ways in which a person's "voice" in his or her blog posts, or in posts in our internal forums, can convey a distinctive picture of what someone is like in real life -- a picture that, frequently, turns out to be some distance from the person you find in front of you.

I don't think this can be attributed to people not being themselves on their blogs. Rather, I think it may come down to how we express ourselves -- and what we're trying to communicate -- to different audiences.

Online, we don't know who may be reading. There's a way in which one's blog persona is a very public thing (and, thanks to the Google cache, a very public thing that may be available for close inspection for a long time). This can make you pretty careful about how you present yourself. At the same time, especially for those blogging while pseudonymous, communication online can feel safer -- you can put your ideas and arguments out there and let them sink or swim on their own merits, rather than having them tied up with preexisting impressions about what kind of person the author of those ideas and arguments is.

But it's not like people don't make careful decisions about how they present themselves to others in real life. (Indeed, this can be a big part of staying employed.) And I daresay that even in this digital age, most people are experimenting with self-presentation in real life long before they start dabbling with self-presentation online.

Either way, the crux of the problem seems to be that many of us feel like we have a self to which other people don't have immediate access. When the Rocket Man muses, "I'm not the man they think I am at home," it points to the fact that people form an impression of who we are that may not match well at all with who we think we really are. In order for others to understand what we see as our true self -- for them not just to see us as intelligible, but to understand us as we understand ourselves -- we have to communicate the inner stuff that we have access to but they don't. In communicating that stuff, we have to figure out what bits of the inner stuff really are reflective of who we are and which bits are extraneous.

Sometimes communicating who we are actually turns into a process of discovering who we are, or even of shaping who we are -- working to become the self we want to be but are not yet.

Sometimes the people with whom we're communicating will take the bits of ourselves that we're laying out for them and draw quite different conclusions about who we really are. Could their conclusions be more accurate than our own? I suspect so. There are times when that might be comforting (as when one is in the throes of the impostor syndrome), and other times when this might not (say, if one aspired to be a singer and didn't have the grasp of pitch he thought he did).

Is who we are even a stable target? Is the best judge of who we are ourselves, our friends, our families, or strangers? Are we most ourselves in real life or online? Are we most ourselves when no one is watching or when anyone could be watching? And does who we are even matter from the point of view of expressing the other ideas, arguments, and questions we want to put out into the discourses in the public and private spheres?

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all questions, no answers.
but the questions are more valuable than answers would be.

By greensmile (not verified) on 21 Aug 2007 #permalink

working to become the self we want to be but are not yet

This is pretty much why I do everything I do. I don't actually have a final self in mind -- I just want to keep improving.

people want to have it both ways which is why the online communication breaks down for, er, fervent discussion. the motivation for anonymity is, as you say, because one want the idea considered in purity, uncontaminated by pre-existing assumptions about someone's motivations. because some version of "you are just taking the position that is good for you personally" is an inevitable assumption. nevertheless, eventually people backslide to wishing to rely upon their credentials or unique experiences. to use authority in place of good argument. and so they start to back out of the anonymous position in small or big ways.

it can be fun to watch. Usenet newsgroups were a great experiment in this. You had a mini version with good ol' SRivlin a while ago. The technical changes don't change human nature.

One thing: everyone is much more beautiful in person than on their "about me" pictures.

I think it depends on the individual bloggers, but given that I met my fiance through our respective blogs, I can say with some confidence that true personalities are revealed -- both intentionally and unintentionally -- in the writing on one's blog. I'm not saying all the bloggers i've met were EXACTLY what I expected from their online writing -- except for Bora!, who is precisely what I expected :) -- but I knew they were people I would like and enjoy hanging out with. There's still room for deepening an acquaintance/budding friendship in all such cases, because people are complex creatures, and nobody reveals their innermost selves online -- or even in person, for that matter. But I've formed too many close friendships -- not to mention finding a life partner -- via my online interactions to deny the power of the blogosphere in fostering a sense of community.

However, I do think there is an equal degree of truth to Janet's statement that public perceptions of bloggers sometimes differ quite radically from what they might be like in person. People bring their own biases and preconceptions to the reading of blogs; more often than not, they tend to project those onto the bloggy personality, and this colors their perception. And sometimes, we don't quite realize how we're presenting ourselves in the public sphere. Other peoples' perceptions can be quite illuminating in that case.

Yesterday, I wrote:

I have noticed it several times before, but this is something that really came out in full force at the Meetup as we really feel like an online family - meeting people online can produce real freindships. Then, when you meet offline for the first time after years of cyberchatter, there is nothing else to do but hug and continue the conversation over a beer as if you personally have known each other for year. There is no need to spend any time 'getting to know' each other.

In many ways, I know some of my blogfriends better than I know some of my real-life colleagues and acquaintances, as personality and some deeper secrets come out in people's writings, even if they are really good at concealing those in person. The good thing is that I actually really like all of my Sciblings and meeting them all in person just reinforced this feeling - what a fantastic bunch of people!

When the Rocket Man muses, "I'm not the man they think I am at home,"

Thanks for clearing that up. I always thought the lyrics were:

"I'm not the man they think I am at all."

By yukon slim (not verified) on 21 Aug 2007 #permalink

These are interesting observations.

Another side of blogging and communicating. In face-to-face communication, we tend to infer some of the meaning from the people (yep, there's some cold reading of some sort), while with blogging, we tend to infer people from what they write. The exact reverse. I guess we are left here with what best symbolizes to us the content gifted on blogs we read.

I'm used to meeting people off of forum based electronic media and it seems blogs would be different if only because you all have a sort of authority that most lack on forums. That said, I've noticed that sometimes a quick real life conversation can square away seemingly different opinions or can reveal a huge gap where there appeared to be none. My blog is certainly not big enough for me to feel comfortable with the title blogger, but I know people read it, and I'm sure there are some people out there who know me only as a blogger. That is the interaction I find more interesting, the one between the blogger and the readers in real life. I would feel really weird meeting people who only know me through reading my blog if they didn't make up the part of the blogosphere in which I take part.