Online Life Is Real Life, Aleph-Nought in a Series

Back before The Pip was born, our previous departmental administrative assistant used to bug me-- in a friendly way-- about how Kate and I ought to have another kid. (She had two kids of her own, about two years apart in age.) "When are you guys going to have another baby?" she would ask, and I always said "We're thinking about it."

About a week passed between the last time we had that exchange and the day I came in and taped ultrasound photos of the prenatal Little Dude to my door. "You sonofabitch!," she said (again, in a friendly way), "You were expecting this whole time!" "Yeah," I said, "but we weren't telling anyone until now."

I thought of this while I was reading John Scalzi's epic post about self-presentation, prompted by someone who complained that he behaved differently in person than that person had expected from Scalzi's online persona. (Personally, having met John in person several times, I don't see it, but whatever...) Scalzi rightly notes that there's nothing at all wrong with this, and that much of the difference is (probably) just basic courtesy and politeness.

This is not remotely a new argument, as you probably got from my snarky post title-- it's come around before, and will come around again. I side with Scalzi in thinking that there's nothing wrong with presenting yourself in a slightly different way online than off. I'd go maybe a little further than that, though, and note that presenting yourself in different ways to different people is something we do all the time, even in strictly offline interactions.

This made me think about the incident with our former admin, which is a bit of an extreme example, but illustrates the point. At home, Kate and I had obviously known about the proto-Pip for a couple of months, and were making all sorts of plans and so on. But while I cheerfully talked at some length about SteelyKid, I dodged any questions about future kids, because Kate and I had agreed that we weren't making it public, yet. I think our parents knew (but I don't recall the exact timing), but it wasn't something going out on the blog or even to people I spent a lot of time talking to at work.

And basically anyone who ins't a phenomenal boor modifies their self-presentation in this sort of way. If you have a job and family, there are things you just aren't allowed to share with people outside those contexts, and that modifies your interaction with different groups. I talk about campus life in a different way when I'm with a bunch of students than when I'm with fellow faculty, for example. Milder versions that don't involve trade secrets also happen all the time: when we're with friends who share a particular interest, we play up that interest, and play down other things-- I talk a lot about sports at the gym with the regular pick-up basketball crowd, but sports aren't as big a topic around the physics department. Even when we don't have the Internet as an intermediary, we're slightly different things to different groups of people, because that's one of the things that lets human society function.

This is something we do so smoothly that we're often not really aware of it, which is why so many people think it's an online-only phenomenon. But if you think about it a little, it's probably not hard to come up with offline examples of people who behave very differently in different contexts. Even people who insist that they present themselves the same way in all possible situations almost certainly change the way they talk and what they talk about when they go from home, to work, to whatever they do for fun. It's just how we work, and sticking a computer in the middle doesn't fundamentally change that.

You might argue that, by removing some of the non-verbal cues and ingrained rules about in-person interactions, the Internet enables a bigger disconnect between on- and off-line personae than are possible in a strictly offline context. I'm not entirely sure I buy that, though, because I've seen some pretty extreme divergences in offline-only interactions. (And, of course, there's the "He was such a quiet guy..." trope about serial killers and the like.) What's different about the Internet is the possibility of exposing these different personae to the whole world, rather than a small group of close acquaintances who might happen to run into a person in two different subgroups.

But that's another topic. The main point at the moment is that I agree with Scalzi: there's nothing inappropriate about self-presenting in a different way in person than online. Mostly because that sort of shifting is a phenomenon that pre-dates the Internet by a good many years.


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I agree we are in some ways quite diferent people with different groups of friends, colleagues, family, to the extent that it can be disconcerting when people who know those different sides of us meet. People wo do not realise this are just not very self-aware.

i was talking to my wife about this other day. just because i'm nice to you online doesn't mean i think you are awesome and want to act like we're friends and you know what's going on in my life. this seems pretty obvious to a blogger, but most people aren't bloggers.

By razib khan (not verified) on 30 Sep 2016 #permalink

This is not really a substantial comment, but I think I'm going to have to nitpick the title and point out that ℵ_0 is a cardinal rather than an ordinal. (Yes, you can abuse it to mean ω, but...)