Between Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Facebook—and Google+ huddled alone in a corner—it’s almost unheard of for people not to have some form of online presence. The internet connects us all in one way or another and one thing I’ve always wondered about and which a recent situation brought to my mind is how far some people go to control how others perceive that online persona.
Here’s the situation. An acquaintance recently made his début as a speaker in a technical conference and to get there he studied, bought books on the subject of public speaking and nailed the presentation to be honest. But on the way, the organisers of the event shared his personal twitter— without his permission, which I consider a bit of a no-no, always ask!
As they did that, everyone around him convinced him to look closely at his twitter account and make sure it conveyed the professional image that they wanted him to have, though not necessarily the one he liked. He followed their advice without question and somehow got it into his head that this was the right way to go.
It doesn’t sound like a problem, but it wasn’t just the content they were carefully monitoring and changing, but also his profile image and even his followers. I think when you’re culling your followers based on their handle and whether they’re appropriate or not, you’re crossing a line. The thing with his profile image was because it was a picture of him in the gym bench-pressing and they thought it might attract the wrong kind of attention.
It baffles me that someone might do this. I’ve always felt and believed that your content and the way you behave online determines what your internet persona is like. Sure, an offensive profile image can get you in trouble but it has to be something extremely bad, something without any wiggle room in terms of interpretation.
More often than not, it’s your content or the one you share that will get you in real trouble. Just look at the case for Zahra Schreiber, a professional wrestler formerly with the WWE. The sports entertainment giant fired Schreiber after she shared Nazi-related photos on her Instagram account. She claimed the photos and imagery were just because of her love for history, whatever it may be, but the internet was having none of it and the resulting backlash got her fired. Months before that, naked photos of her made it online and no one really gave a damn, but it was this bit of content she produced which caused her issues.
If you want something more recent or topical, look no further than Presidential Candidate and all around lunatic Donald Trump. It’s not his profile image that you should look at, no matter how shiny that toupee is and it’s not the list of followers, some of which are bound to be questionable and downright scary, but the words spoken by the man himself. Every time he opens his mouth or types words down, he’ll ignite flame wars because he’s completely mental. His online persona and the reactions to it come from the content he’s sharing. If he wanted to return to a more positive light, he’d have to change that content, not carefully control who’s following him.
If you want a third example, look no further than Microsoft’s Twitter-bot, Tay. A normal image and a massive list of followers, but it was ‘her’ tweets that caused uproar, it was the content that made Microsoft pull the plug on their experiment. I can only imagine what would’ve happened if they had let that AI loose on the world of visual social media, like YouTube and Instagram. What kind of things would the AI have shared and how many people would’ve been offended by it? It was an unmitigated disaster, one that exploded on content alone.
Some people curate an online persona, carefully controlling every word they say, every opinion they have just to make sure they don’t offend or alienate anyone. But when is it too much? When does this control turn the online persona sterile, completely devoid of any soul or personality? And how do you realise when you’ve crossed the line?
I’m not the most politically correct person out there and I’ve had some Twitter and even Facebook confrontations in the past, and yet I have never been anyone but myself, even if that hurts my possibilities of getting an audience, because I can’t be anyone else but me, warts and all. Even under the identity of LawfulGeek I haven’t changed anything, I haven’t blocked followers whose handle or opinions I felt were contrary to mine. I think if you’re doing that on the off-chance that someone might check your follower list and see something unappealing, you’ve crossed the line into full-on mental. I think controlling your online persona to such a degree is complete and utter insanity.
Hell, even if my language is clean on most of my videos and on every article, I swear quite a lot on my social media, because I don’t feel the need to control my content to such a degree. I have limits on how much I’m willing to do for my online presence.
But maybe you’re not yourself online, maybe you have a finely crafted online persona, your own version of Stephen Colbert during the era of The Colbert Report, or Jim Sterling’s bombastic cantankerous self, or even Yahtzee Croshaw’s maladjusted hateful critic persona. Your online presence is all about the portrayal of this character and you make sure everything about your profile fits with the concept you have for it…but there is still a reasonable limit on how much you should be willing to do to keep it all going. If you’re on Twitter, you’ll tweet and retweet the right things to go with your character, and the same of Facebook. On Instagram and YouTube, you’ll share only videos and images that fit the character’s personality and tastes, and so on with the rest of the social media world.
But I can bet that you’ll never go so far as to clear out your following and follower list to make sure it’s all shiny and polished and fits the character you’re portraying. Because there are lines, limits we can’t break if we still want to call ourselves rational human beings.
When this acquaintance started this culling of his followers and carefully groomed the profile, I told him there was no need for it, but they convinced him that because people related to some big companies might see it, the profile had to be spotless and avoid anything that might seem even slightly suspicious. And I still wonder: so what? So what if one of his followers had a porn-handle that spoke of doing unspeakable things to some unmentioned and faceless theoretical Japanese woman? Do you know how many such handles exist out there, and how many belong to completely mild-mannered people or even big stars in some industries? Some people just love the shock value, or the handle is some private joke, hilarious to them only.
I’ll say it again, culling your followers because their names, not even their opinions or content, but just their names might offend someone is lunacy.
And beyond the sheer lunacy of this level of control, which I’ve gone on about too much already, isn’t the act of blocking followers for these shallow reasons just social media suicide? Isn’t it just bound to bite you in the butt and cause people to desert you? Getting followers to stay with you is already one of the hardest things in the world of social media, so what happens when you do get them and then say, “Eh, I don’t like your name, goodbye!” If that person finds out what you did, trying to find you and realising you’ve blocked them, they might start a bit of a war with you that might very well blow over and not affect you. But it can backfire on you and if that happens, you’ve just brought it on yourself.
Every follower is a potential springboard for your content. They help you reach new heights and new audiences. On this front it’s even more idiotic and crazy to control your profile to such a degree. It doesn’t do anything for you but roll some stones that might turn into a horrendous avalanche.
But maybe that’s just me, maybe I’m the one in the wrong with this one. I don’t believe in controlling my online persona to such a degree, as I think my content speaks for itself and it conveys my personality and ideals. Maybe controlling things to this degree is the way to go if you want to be successful. I don’t believe so because even if you’re just portraying a character, you never want to lose the soul and personality behind the online persona.
No one wants to be a machine online, not even Microsoft, and that’s saying something.
What do you think? Is there a line, al rational limit on how much you control your online persona or is this level of control necessary and/or the right idea? Let me know in the comments.