Keeping One’s Online Persona Intact

Amber reports on Ezra Klein’s little problem – I’d quite frankly be more worried about having written articles this awful if I were Klein, though.

A long time ago I realized even having a completely clean persona, one was vulnerable to attacks online. In fact, back then I was actually more vulnerable to trolls, because I went into 1) “What did I do to deserve this?” mode and 2) People root for the underdog, even if the underdog is scum. They’re inclined to look at a troll and try to take what they say seriously, even after seeing those same trolls openly lie and slander and bully elsewhere.

Nowadays, my online persona is that of “asshole,” and this is not wholly unmerited. I’ve bullied plenty of people on the Internet – those comment threads are everywhere, you need only look if you haven’t seen them. I’ve deleted comments which people have put much time and effort into because I got ticked off at their tone (talk about hypocrisy). There are plenty of curse words and downright vicious insults against bloggers, politicians, famous people and just regular people all over my writings. I’ve pleaded for attention and spammed like crazy. I don’t cite my sources nearly as well as I should – I give credit, but nowhere near enough compared to the amount I write. And then there’s that insanely pompous attitude all my writings and comments have, like as if I know better than everyone, like as if I’m actually in dialogue with the authors I discuss.

The thing I think Amber’s post doesn’t quite get is that it seems to say public/private personas are merging in some way, perhaps a way that is wholly new. I think that what’s happening is that a lot of us, now that we’re instantly published, are simply learning to forge public personas the hard way – you can’t be squeaky clean, not if you want influence. If you want popularity, yes, you can be squeaky clean, like the bloggers who write on blogging. Everyone in that little world is nice and kind and writes articles a 12 year old can understand and that’s great.

But such popularity comes at the cost of identity. The author of one post sounds exactly like the author of another. And then there’s being too “moderate,” like Klein’s above post on how many orations he’s heard that are great – he has a distinct voice, to be sure, but should anyone take that voice seriously? Klein is aiming for influence, but perhaps one that is too self-centered. There needs to be something more he gives first, I think, and there are probably two sorts of influence – one is where the idea comes with a person or author attached to it, the other is where the idea or question matters that much more than the vehicle.

There might be a benefit to being an “asshole:” it could demonstrate implicitly that one is willing to sacrifice having people’s respect for bringing readers something incredibly important. It’s so important that one doesn’t even care if it helps the reader immediately or helps the author, i.e. the sort of instant realization of utility and reciprocation that drives many popular blogs. All that matters is that thinking and questioning start anew, and in an age where even professors are paid (by us) to tell us what we want to hear (when not teaching wholly practical skills), unpopularity of a sort may be the only true way to convey import.


  1. Hmm. You make some pretty strong assertions here that leave me wondering where they came from. I’m not saying they’re necessarily untrue, mind you – just that I don’t see your reasoning.

    Firstly, you can’t be influential if your public personna is “squeeky-clean”? What leads you to think that? Personally, I tend to find myself more easily influenced by those who come across as respectable, and who are civil in debates. If someone is being a jerk, on the other hand, I find myself tempted to disregard whatever he has to say before I even hear it.

    The second thing that surprised me a bit is when you state that popularity of the squeeky-clean variety “comes at the cost of identity”. Is niceness really incompatable with uniqueness? If so, what makes it so? It seems to me that it is possible to be nice and polite and still be capable of putting forth thoughts that are distinctive and provocative.

    I may be misreading you, of course. At any rate, I’d be interested if you care to elaborate.

  2. As always, thanks for the comment! You’re not misreading, I do need to clarify some things.

    I suppose I should have prefaced this entry with some remarks about being online. There are big differences between being online and seeing other people in the flesh.

    The biggest difference is that “trolling,” looking to stir things up and nothing else, carries little or no penalty here – ok, so a fake username or fake e-mail can be banned. Also, since many people themselves “troll” or “have trolled,” the audience here can be very sympathetic to that sort of questioner.

    Furthermore, a polite tone and being nice can be really superficial things online. It is possible to advance the worst sort of conspiracy theory, brimming with hatred, with no curse words and no passion even, just lots of hyperlinked “facts.” Many of us blogging have encountered very polite people that had arguments so stupid we were reduced to cursing up a storm.

    So nothing in the above entry, I think, should be read as a guide for interacting with people offline.

    The thing is, no matter what, one wants to show consideration and respect to their audience. I’m appealing to the example, ultimately, of an unlikeable teacher who challenges students to explain why online popularity might be overrated. I think that example explains why we’re attracted to saints even in this secular age – it isn’t the purity so much, as the challenge: “I can do that, can’t I?”

    In the end, one can’t really lead by example online: these are just words. There needs to be something which conveys the sense of seriousness underlying what one is doing, something that is distinctly one’s own. I can think of someone super nice who can pull this off – is a prime example – but I prefer a rougher approach, esp. as I’m trying to see what a passionate but controlled partisanship can look like.

    I really don’t want to get into the larger issue of identity and moral perfection, and whether identity slips away if one is morally perfect. Milton argues that at the end of time, Christ shall be literally all in all, that God will be in each of us such that we will only be relating to “Him” through each other, i.e. we never will experience God as Christ does in Paradise Lost because He won’t need to be there in that way. Suffice it to say that for us mere humans, identity does involve some element of at least indicating where one is fallible.

  3. What is that faux-biblical saying… errr, ummm, it’s a spin on 1 corinthians 9:22 something to the effect of in being everything to everyone you are nothing to anyone.

    Eh, I can’t remember and neither can I find it.

    Anyway, the world online is very different from the real world where you can be that “squeaky-clean” person and influence through that example, but online everybody is looking for a fight. I’ve often thought- maybe that’s what they come here for.

  4. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.
    1 Corinthians 9:22
    is that what you were looking for Amanda?

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