The Obsession with Creating Online Personas

Neon Genesis Evangelion ep. 26

I was first properly introduced to social media at the tender age of 13, when I was just entering secondary school on my own and was desperate to make new friends with my classmates who all seemed to already be friends with each other prior to my arrival. Hence, when curious questions like “Do you have a Friendster account?” were thrown my way, I took to finding out what that was so I could be included in their discussions concerning this Friendster thing.

So, I made a Friendster account for myself and started adding all my new classmates as friends, and then my old primary school classmates who also had Friendster accounts. It was an entirely new thing, since my previous exposures to the Internet were only limited to MSN Messenger (oh, those were the days, my comrades), but I quickly saw what was so intriguing about Friendster (and eventually, MySpace, although I never really got into that because I didn’t see the point in a second social media account when something like Friendster already existed. But I caved in and signed up for a MySpace account anyway because, well, all my friends had one). You could upload photos of yourself and your friends, change the themes and designs of your profile to suit your preferences (white background with drawn animated stars and hearts and cute animals? Or black background with crudely spray-painted words in pink colour? The struggle was real, because what you chose ended up becoming the personality you embodied; it was the Internet-equivalent of a first impression), add descriptions of yourself for your friends to read, and of course, leave comments on your friends’ profiles. It was amazing. Of course, on the other end of the allure of social media, you get to view your friends’ profiles and well, form discreet judgments of them based on their Internet profiles, but I was more intrigued with polishing and refining the online identity I’d created for myself. Understandably unsurprising, considering how much of a narcissist I am.

For someone like me who was being thrown into a new surrounding with new people, I saw it as an opportunity to appeal to my new friends in ways that I never could in real life where real-time interactions and communications took place because I was too shy and timid. It was a chance for me to create an alternate personality for myself which was more interesting and enticing so that other people would want to be friends with me.

Of course, I wasn’t aware that was what I was doing back then. I was incredibly afraid of being alone and just wanted to make new friends, and that was one of the measures I took to achieve my goal.

I got myself a blog that very same year –hint: it’s this one- because a friend I’d admired had one and I liked writing and it was free, so why not? I found the prospect of having something I wrote with my own words and sentence arrangements published online for virtually everyone to read tremendously exciting. It’s also daunting, I realise that now, but there was very little inhibitions when I was 13. I understood the general rules of the Internet, of course, drilled into me by my parents and any adult or authority figure who found out “13-year-old Michelle has been on THE INTERNET”: don’t put unflattering or risqué photos of yourself online, don’t release personal information like your full name, address, phone number etc, don’t talk to or fall in love with strangers on the Internet who are actually 50-year-old pedophiles who are waiting to catfish you and then possibly murder you. I knew all that, and I never toed beyond what those rules told me (although, judging by the fact that my blog URL was my full name, I didn’t think that through enough). But other than that, it felt liberating. I wrote about anything and everything concerning my days at school, shows I watched on TV or a really cool restaurant I went to with my parents. I wrote with the idea of a virtual audience in mind, even though obviously that wasn’t very true as only a handful of family and friends knew I possessed a blog. But still I wrote with the prospect of writing for people to read. I started to portray myself as an angsty and pessimistic teenager who was burdened with woes of school and homework, because I felt like I’d want to read the writings of someone like that, and so my posts were filled with incessant complaints and gripes about how hard my life was and how misunderstood I felt on a daily basis.

I think this was when I subconsciously began to create an online persona for myself. Of course, sometimes I tried to dismiss it as “enjoying complaining”, because we all know how cathartic and satisfying it is to complain relentlessly (especially so on the Internet when you don’t have to grab someone in real life and grumble to their faces, forcing them to listen to you against their will), or maybe I already was naturally a very pessimistic person and that was how I was wired to think. And that was true, as well, but the thing was everytime I sat down to type out a blogpost, I would visualize beforehand what kind of impression I was making on other people with the post I had in mind and how best I could alter and shape my words to ensure maximum impact of the desired impression. So what tween!Michelle did was settle into this rebellious and bratty teenage mindset (you know the kind…the kind you find in Western culture in books and TV shows…actually, I’m pretty certain that’s where I got the idea of this persona from) everytime she wanted to write a post, and then go from there. It was kind of like roleplaying (also not surprising since I had already been active on a Harry Potter writing RPG site for two years at the time), but it wasn’t pretending. Sure, I was pessimistic and rebellious when I wanted to be, but I wasn’t just those things; they weren’t my defining characteristics in real life, but they were what I chose to be my defining characteristics online. Which led to exaggerations and emphases on bad things that happened to me everyday, punctuated with undignified protests and emotions and careful omissions of everything else.

Over the next few years of my teenage life, I discovered my blog wasn’t the only available medium for me to enhance my “online persona” (this term gets more and more incredulous the more I think about it, like “hate blogs” or “Internet fame”) and was gradually enamoured to social media. I found Tumblr, and honestly, that website was such a huge influence on me when I was 15, both in good and bad ways, and I wouldn’t have held the same beliefs and principles that I currently hold to this day if it wasn’t for that period of time. At 15 years old on Tumblr, I learned more about creating online identities. I explored many blogs, scrutinized the multitudes of ways other people displayed themselves online, how they talked and conversed to other people, the kind of content they put on their blogs, what kind of topics and fandoms most people were into and why, what kind of discussions people were participating in and what their input was, and of course, how other people responded to the way these people put themselves out to be. What traits did they display that were considered attractive and captivating and made more people want to talk to them? Even the way they typed, what did it usually mean when people typed a certain way (for starters, 15-year-old me found out the “cool people of Tumblr” used popular Internet slangs at the time like “rad” and “yh” and…memes). Gradually, I developed a different persona for myself there, incorporating what the Tumblr community found to be favourable and well-received within myself to stand out and be likeable, even, if I dared to admit, admired. Unfortunately, you can also probably guess that this wasn’t an entirely positive and healthy way to spend my time with. But I grew and learned a lot from that, and to be frank, I’m glad I am now able to pinpoint exactly what I did was problematic and why.

I grew more and more invested in developing my online persona towards my later adolescent years, especially on Facebook and Twitter. While social media is generally known to be a platform where your real life personality spills over onto the Internet in the form of tweets and statuses etc, it was the complete opposite for me. Online, most of us concentrate on a preferred specific aspect of ourselves or display the best versions of ourselves because we are able to choose what we put on the Internet for the public eye to see. We are given the power and freedom to hide our flaws and insecurities and create a more ideal version of ourselves that we aren’t able to do in person.

And that’s what I did. I was and always have been an incredibly shy and timid person, and I hated it. I hated it when people misinterpreted my self-consciousness as arrogance, and I hated myself for allowing my shyness to form a barrier preventing me from interacting normally with other people without nervously fumbling over my words and barely speaking above a whisper. When I found out social media was a way (albeit a rather feeble way, isn’t it, because one can argue it’s a coward’s act of using the Internet as a safety shield) for me to reinvent myself according to my liking, I clung onto it like a lifebuoy, and the idea manifested from there.

At this point, maintaining online personas on my social media accounts became a form of escapism for me. There has never been a very distinct difference between my online persona and myself, but I daresay I made my online persona as intriguing as possible without lying through my teeth (too much). An issue that might rise from the free manipulation of one’s online image is, of course, the issue of falsification and being misleading. Just how much can you fake your online personality (and by this I don’t mean the whole 50-year-old pretending to be a 15-year-old ordeal, we’ve already been through that)? Well, a lot. You can even fake everything, your principles, your preferences etc because you hold just that much power. You can pretend to be someone you’re not, ranging in extremities from eg. pretending to be a fan of Harry Potter when you’re not to pretending to like and be friends with someone when you don’t actually like them. It’s much easier to conceal these fallacious chinks and integrate them into your persona for your own benefit when you’re protected by the disinhibitions of the Internet. Of course, something like the former example would be too trivial for anyone else to care (an issue of self-justification, really) but the latter example might result in complications between interpersonal relations between yourself and people on the Internet.

Another analogy for the fabrication of personas would be playing The Sims: in cases when you’re creating a Sim for yourself, you input the traits you desire most into your Sim and live vicariously through them (although arguably, you are quite literally living your persona so there’s not much vicariousness in play there). Social media allows one to maintain an online identity within an overlapping online and real world context, giving one room to work with existing materials (real-life events, characteristics etc) and transform them into anything they will them to be.

With the Internet, I fabricated a more extroverted version of my introverted self and groomed my persona to be an opinionated and intelligent person with facts on her fingertips and sarcastic wit under her sleeve who is passionate about social activism. That’s not to say it’s not true. That’s not to say I’m not passionate about social activism in real life. That’s not to say I am not witty (I like to think I am!). That’s to say that I probably won’t be able to speak beyond a proper sentence concerning feminism to someone face to face because I’m too nervous and I won’t be able to express everything I want to express in its entirety in the spoken word. That’s also to say that I won’t say something funny when I think of it because of multiple barriers in the form of second-guessing and self-doubt. That’s not to say your persona isn’t you, but rather a different, sharpened version of you that you are unable to exhibit in real life because of reasons (most of them are just fears for me). Because what the Internet does in this case is provide an injection of bravery and confidence (are they real if they’re only present in the presence of the Internet? Well, yeah I suppose, if I allow them to be real) for me to take the next step. Online, I am more confident and self-assured, more talkative and funnier and the imagery of being less bothered by mean comments, thanks to the shield of the Internet.

In fact, I had…and probably still have friends that I talk to all the time on the Internet, but when I meet them in person, very few words are exchanged. That’s not to say that I hate them and am pretending to be friends with them only through the Internet (only the complete opposite, because I can open up about myself better through the Internet – this is also related to how much better I can express myself in the written word than the spoken one), but because I really face the horrible problem of being so incredibly shy and self-conscious that even though I can conjure millions of topics to talk about with said friends through a computer screen, as soon as I am face to face with them, I would freeze up and my mind would go blank and I would spend the next few minutes or hours wondering what was wrong with me. This also goes without saying that if it isn’t for the way I can talk to people on the Internet the way I can’t in person, I wouldn’t have been able to befriend most of my closest friends that I still have to this day (Internet friends included).

The existence and prevalence of online identities on the Internet also gives birth to virtual communities on the Internet which, like all things, can either be toxic or beneficial for netizens. However, a positive aspect of virtual communities that is mostly absent in real life communities is the freedom and opportunity for people to explore and express underlying aspects of their lives that they wouldn’t have been able to portray otherwise in real life due to social stigmas, stereotypes and prejudices. Online identities allow people to feel comfortable executing a wide range of roles without fear of persecution and discrimination due to safe environments built on the Internet by communities who are facing the same problems and adversaries, and this allows healthy discussions and explanations for people that are unable to find solace in commonality in real life.

But perhaps I digress. It’s not new and uncommon knowledge that social media provides virtual escapism for people of all backgrounds. It is considered the go-to leisure activity for anyone with an electronic device with an Internet connection, leading to the creation of a whole new niche market for businesses and industries and even public relations. People utilize the Internet and specifically social media for different purposes: to browse news articles/tabloids, to update themselves on the profiles of the people they are following etc but that’s a conversation for a different day.

Social media is a form of escapism for me because, well, I get to be the person I’ve always wanted to be. Someone I’d like and want to be friends with, and hopefully this will compensate for the shortcomings of my real life personality that might give people the impression that I don’t intend to give. It’s an escape from the Self (my friend Effie also touched on that subject but in terms of fandom culture here, you should give it a read, her elaborations on the topic are far more illuminating and in-depth than mine) – not entirely, because social interactions online are still intrinsically tied in with personal relationships and connections with other people and online identities still face social constraints and hierarchy that are imposed in the real world, but it provides a sense of detachment and disinhibition behind a screen where I am allowed to monitor the online image of myself akin to a third party role.

It’s rereading and reviewing every single thing before posting them on the Internet while imagining the different impressions it might incur in people; sometimes I’d try to view my content through the lens of specific people and decide if there is more likely to be more positive impressions or otherwise. It’s treating it as second nature to think of the next thing I would want to put online to uphold the inception of a “reputation” surrounding the person/character other people think I am through my social media accounts. It’s the very same instinct of preservation that forces me to stop and filter potential content to upload so this doesn’t alter or tarnish the pristine state of my online persona, despite them being absolutely trivial things like “should I type this in all caps or will that seem too overboard”. Likewise, it’s omitting things that I want to analyse and discuss about for the sake of not wanting to “step out of character”.

It’s pretty hilarious and sad at the same time, if you think about it. It’s not unlike those Tumblr users that refuse to reblog things that are not their “blog type” – like refusing to reblog a fandom post onto an aesthetic blog. Come to think of it, I am that kind of person too, the kind that stops at a post they like, finger hovering above the reblog button, picturing and imagining the impression that one single post will leave on their followers (especially followers that they know personally) and having an internal debate over whether the pros of reblogging outweigh the cons. Then, the decision comes whether to scroll past or reblog it, and what kind of tags to input or not at all. It’s always done with the notion that as soon as I hit the reblog button, thousands of pairs of eyes will immediately witness it and proceed to instantaneous judgment when in actuality, no one might even be online at the time. And honestly, who cares what kind of content you want on your blog. Most people that guilt trip you by saying things like “if you don’t reblog this because it doesn’t fit your “blog type” then eff you” are dismissible as is the entire guilt-tripping culture rampant on Tumblr nowadays. (Effie also mentioned this in her blogpost.)

There is no fixed persona for my accounts, but rather phases of different identities I wish for people to witness, according to how my beliefs and tastes change over time. Take 2012, I delved into the One Direction fandom and was unafraid to let the whole world know, but even then, my personas varied across different platforms. Twitter was one thing, relatively shrouded from people I know personally but completely accessible to online friends with the same interests as I do, so there were very little barriers and I felt free enough to be the avid fangirl I wanted to be. On the other hand, Facebook and WordPress were completely different. That wasn’t to say I didn’t talk about 1D at all, but I kept a semblance of control that was absent on Twitter for the sake of not wanting to be teased and taunted for loving the things and people I loved by people I know in real life.

I am no longer in that fandom now, but with an array of different social media, I realise that I still do portray myself differently across different mediums nowadays. Perhaps the most distinctive example I can draw is how differently I behave (type? write?) on compared to other social media. I’m rather blunt and straightforward when it comes to replying anonymous questions. As a result, I’m sometimes called mean and obnoxious for that. But that’s kind of true. I feel like I can rather be obnoxious and condescending whenever I start to reply to questions directed my way, but that’s because I’ve had my fair share of more than unpleasant anonymous invasion and hatred that sometimes I find myself tending to group all anonymous askers as a single entity. In contrast, who I want to be on my Youtube channel is as aspiring an individual that I can be with positive outlooks and advices, someone whom other people can look up to the way I look up to certain Youtubers. I think it works in the way that, as I’d been largely influenced by Youtubers for a few years now, and watching their videos have helped me through rather tough times over the years, I wanted to be the same as them to the other Michelles in the world, if that makes sense. The identity I present through Youtube is one that I wish can be as helpful as those of the Youtubers that have impacted me in many constructive ways.

I mentioned something a few paragraphs back about how instead of real-life personality spilling over onto social media, it was the opposite for me, online personality spilling over onto real life. Because the thing is, social media and the Internet has helped me gain so much self-esteem and confidence, both from the interactions I’ve had with online communities and the creative content I upload for the Internet to experience. Contrastingly, I would never have been brave enough to carry out these interactions and distributions in real life without the aid of the Internet, and it wouldn’t have been as easy for me to grow and progress as an individual. So, while all this talk about inventing online personas might seem absurd and probably deranged, it’s mostly a coping mechanism and self-defense method for me to overcome my fears and offer that giant boost for me to ascend levels of bravery and strength. Positive feedbacks and encouragements I receive online indicate that I must be doing something right, so subtly, the confidence and self-assurance I cultivate from being the person I am online are assimilated into who I am in real life when carrying out daily tasks and engaging with other people.

In 2011, I was part of a young journalist programme called Starstruck! in which a group of about 40 high school students were selected to write for a school pullout called Stuff@School. As all us Starstruckers hailed from different parts of the country, everything including assignment schedules and deadlines, discussions among group members or just general interactions with each other was carried out online. All I knew about the other Starstruckers prior to meeting them face to face was how they looked like in their Facebook photos, the words they typed (and how they typed it) etc. Over the year, my perception (perception is also another interesting aspect that I’ll talk about later) of their online personas in relation to their real life personas solidified, and I could attach certain attributes (those that were detectable through the Internet, anyway) to their faces and conjure an idea of them in my mental database that goes along with the label of “I know these people well” without actually having met them in person.

At the end of the year, all of us finally got together to meet in the flesh, and I still remember one meeting we had in a conference room together with the editors of S@S where the topic of “online personas” was brought up and everyone started clamouring about how some people didn’t seem at all like who they were on Facebook and some people were exactly how they visualized them to be. It was interesting, like seeing a different side of someone else entirely, especially when you already have an existing expectation in your head about someone’s personality based on the amount of data you have procured from the interactions you’ve had had with them. I think someone mentioned person A (identity anonymity because I actually forgot who they were talking about) was very quiet and mostly absent on Facebook during assignment discussions, so naturally they thought he/she was also the same in real life, but it turned out to be the complete opposite. It’s fascinating, just how much you can manipulate people into thinking a certain way about you based on how you present yourself on the Internet. (I am not saying person A is manipulative, but rather how much control you can have over other people’s perceptions of your own personality just by some mouse clicks and keyboard taps.)

During that same period, I remember Le Shea telling me “you’re exactly like how you are on Twitter” when we met for the first time and I was a bit surprised because I felt differently, that I’ve always portrayed myself to be someone who was more confident about my opinions on Twitter than I was in person. In 2013, when I first entered college, a coursemate who had read my blog before told me that I was nothing like the person he’d thought I was by reading my posts (I initially felt a bit undignified because he said “you seem much more interesting on your blog” but then I realised he was right).

But of course the existence of online personas come hand in hand with perceptions, yours and other people’s as well, because what you perceive to be the online persona you want people to see might not be the same thing as what they regard it to be. It is the fundamental variable that decides what your online persona is and appears to be to other people, despite all the mechanics you undertake to construct a persona of your preferences. You can only assume the common thought process people might take (which is as similar to yours as possible), but even then, the most knowledgeable person who has studied the human thought processes and pathways still doesn’t wield the power and capability to discern and control every single person’s mental operation based on what they see, so really, the creation of an online persona is as much for yourself as it is for other people as well.

However, the disinhibitions that come with social media, as I’m sure you all know, when misused has the ability to cause more harm than good. While it certainly is easy to be a better version of yourself with the Internet as a safety shield, it is also as easy (if not easier) to be a worse version of yourself using the very same shield. There is a phrase called “online detachment” where because online users are given the choice of anonymity in addition with the insensitivity that might arise due to the convenient illusion that people one interacts with online are just pixels with no feelings and are therefore not as real as the people they talk to in real life, this leads to what is commonly known as “Internet hate” – verbal attacks against other people with differing opinions etc (sometimes even without context) and more worryingly, harmful opinions or comments laced with blatant racism, sexism, homophobia etc under the guise of “freedom of speech”. So while I am a strong advocate of using the Internet to boost one’s self-esteem with the availability of an alternate persona that is otherwise difficult or impossible in the real world (from personal testimonial, not speaking on behalf of anyone), it must also be addressed and emphasised that the negative aspects of being able to hide behind a screen can be tremendously damaging and alarming, and that sadly seems to be the majority of the netizen community (one need only spend five minutes in Youtube comments to be compelled to swear off the Internet forever). I don’t want to dismiss the harmful effects of using the Internet as a shield purely because I feel like I’ve gained and learned a lot from growing up with the Internet.

On the other hand, another issue that is also worth discussing about concerning social media and the cultivation of online personas is a predicament coined as Social Media Anxiety. For someone like me who’s hell-bent on pleasing everyone and afraid of saying the wrong things, it is entirely too easy for plenty of second-guessing and analysing when there is a lack of other physical factors (voice intonations, facial expressions, body languages) to analyse about what the other party truly means when they say something. I’m sure this isn’t something uncommon for a lot of people out there too. It’s rereading a tweet or a text or a comment about ten or twenty times before sending them out, typing forwards and backwards endlessly while juggling worries on both ends of the spectrum of “is this reply too passive/bland/mean” or “is this reply too enthusiastic/boastful/assuming” etc until hopefully an optimum middle ground is reached, followed by pressing the “tweet” or “send” button with closed eyes and sweaty palms before exiting the app and closing the phone (“this way it won’t seem like I’m too desperate after I’d just spent five minutes typing out a reply”). Late or no replies from other party are mauled over and over again in my head, wondering if there was something wrong that I’d said the last time we conversed. The mere fact that I am consumed with creating online personas suggest that I care way too much about what people think or perceive of me. There are of course many other different kinds of social media anxiety like concentrating on the number of likes/views on content and FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) but social media is most anxiety-inducing for me in the sense that it leaves too much room for second-guessing about what people think of me.

I’m getting better and dealing with that, though. I’m getting better at managing my anxiety in general, I think and I hope.

These past few months, I’ve been completely submerged in the Internet world of social media (mainly Twitter, Tumblr and Youtube) to the extent that I’ve been encouraged to create content of my own and put them up on these social medias (Youtube videos, blogposts, fics etc). My abundant time spent on the Internet has led me to pay more attention to how I portray myself to be perceived on these different platforms, which prompted me to write this. Even as I am writing this, I’m deciding how I want to be seen and regarded and what kind of impression I will most likely leave on you, reader, by writing this post for people to read, with several people whose opinions I really care about in mind.

This is also different content on my blog here because I want to change other people’s perceptions of who I am on this blog, as this blog is mostly filled with emotional ramblings and anecdotes. I’m not saying those are bad or that I want to stop writing them (I quite like writing them, even with the persistent fear that it might be considered annoying and excessive for people to read) because my emotions are valid and they don’t make me weak like I used to believe, but I also want to show that I am more than the emotional and melancholic persona that I’ve made myself out to be on this blog, as previous fears have prevented me from straying from the default “emotional post template” on Careful Confessions.

In many ways, we are all creating personas for ourselves, online or not, and some of us just more studious about it than others. In the last episode of Neon Genesis Evangelion, the penultimate scene shows an exchange:

Misato:    Because you have no existence but of yourself, you can’t figure out your own shape.

Shinji:      My shape?

                        [My image.]

Misato:   Yes. You are getting to know your own shape through seeing others’ shapes.

Asuka:    Seeing others’ walls, you imagine yourself.

Rei:         You cannot see yourself unless there are others.

Shinji:     Because there are others, I can exist. If alone, I am always alone anywhere. The world is entirely by my…

Misato:    By cognizing the difference between you and others, you form the image of yourself.

This scene signifies much more than creating alternate personas for oneself but part of it, part of getting to know oneself better is by creating something to show people, and thus allowing ourselves to define ourselves in relation to the perceptions of others.

Do you do the same ie. consciously create a different personality for yourself online? And how much does it deviate from how you present yourself in real life? As you can see, I am pretty nervous about Writing A 5k Word Thing Entirely About Opinions so I’d like to know what you think!