Online lions and offline lambs

February 28, 2011

Lion finger puppet

Brave lion. By getdancey_ on flickr

I’ve been thinking about personality, and how it differs between our online  and offline selves.  There is a hope, expressed by all sorts of people, that the internet represents an easy way to understand exactly what people think.

According to this argument, if we listen to internet conversations (scrape them, analyse them, Google-alert them) then we know what’s going on. It’s just a case of data reduction.

I think that’s incredibly problematic, and here are three difficulties that I see with this way of thinking.

1. Online lions may be offline lambs

It feels practically taboo to write this.  In the course of a long and happy internet-mediated life, I have met many people in the flesh that I first knew online.   Many of my closest friends are people that I’ve met like this.

But I have also learned that some extremely important aspects of personality don’t always come through online.  The most obvious example is shyness or social awkwardness.   Here, the online life and soul of the party turns out to be quiet or taciturn when you meet them.

The internet has been massively freeing to introverted souls (and I’d count myself among them), but online vivacity may or may not match the way that person behaves in a real world social situation.

Online hostility also easily dribbles to nothing, whether it’s backbiting on Oh No They Didn’t, misogyny on Youtube, or simple nastiness on the Guardian.

In my Livejournal days, it was practically a given that the most unpleasant, personal, evil  troll in a flamewar would turn out to be a 15 year old girl from Ohio with a locked journal and a penchant for My Chemical Romance.

But some lions really are lions. Wherever they go.

Sometimes, you can’t really tell.

2. We constantly perform ourselves – but some performances are more truthful than other.

Peggy Orenstein in the New York Times has written about  Twitter as a self-conscious performance.   We act for the crowd.  My research colleague Ray Poynter has pointed out that in a sense this doesn’t matter -  all conversation is social, in that it’s spoken with an audience in mind.  The internet is just another location where that is true.

I would argue that, yes, all conversation has an element of performance – but some of those performances are elaborate artifices, while others come close to expressing our essential thoughts and values.

Think of the difference between a job interview and lunch with a close friend.

Our performances are shaped by our ideas of who’s listening, and how free we feel to to express our genuine emotions.

Facebook me is friendly and a little bit formal.

Twitter me can be silly one minute and self-aggrandising the next.

LinkedIn me is a social climbing nightmare.

I’ve written elsewhere about a project I did which involved one-to-one telephone interviews followed by focus groups.  In one interview, I spoke to a guy who had a lot of insight ggained from his time spent on gay dating sites. During the focus group, he didn’t volunteer any of that to the straight-looking people around him.  He simply wasn’t comfortable enough.

We edit ourselves.

3. We want to look bigger than we are

In our working lives, we like to self-present as authoritative and popular.

In our social lives (I have a teenager who lives on Facebook), it’s the same.

In a world where business relationships are founded on Twitter interchange and blog commenting, we  are often playing ourselves as bigger, richer and more successful than we really are.  It can be a guessing game, sometimes: does that man who auto-Tweets his way through the weekend really have a major business?  Or is it just smoke and mirrors?

We might find out, if we meet. (Or we might not)

The truth of who we are and what we value lives somewhere between our status updates and the conversation we might have face-to-face.

I’m tempted to draw some kind of moral (What does this mean for Your Thing), because I think these gaps and misfits have some interesting consequences.  But I don’t think it’s simple.  Thoughts welcome.



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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Nancy February 28, 2011 at 9:58 pm

When you enter the “it’s complicated” territory, you enter an interesting world — because then you practically HAVE to tell a story of some kind. No matter what the tale, everyone wants to hear it. We live by stories. Promise an interesting story. . . and you have captured the attention of almost anyone you care to attract :-)

This is an insightful post — with several interesting stories within it. No one says we MUST reveal our innermost secrets online; there is such a thing as sacred space and it has a lot to do with one’s privacy preferences. But we all want to hang out online.

Quite the conundrum, isn’t it?

Thanks for another great blog post Alison!


Anonymous February 28, 2011 at 10:54 pm

Thanks for commenting, Nancy.

I think it’s an interesting question because there are several different ways it can play out. If you’re trying to research behaviour, you’re probably best trying to ‘triangulate’ different methods. If you’re looking at teaching people real things using online methods then it might make you think carefully about how you ensure that your teaching hooks into the learner’s everyday life. Some of us talk a great talk in our online personas, LOL.


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