I SCROLL DOWN my Facebook homepage, read status after status. A friend from high school posts a funny picture. I Like it. A fan of my former band talks about the great meal his wife cooked. I Like it. A family member posts a picture of her with her friend acting silly. I comment, “Goofball.” Someone I barely know posts a link to a political news article. I Like it.
The funny thing is, I don’t actually like any of it. Oh sure, I don’t mind any of it, but the distinction is important. The high school friend just friended me, and I feel some compulsion to participate in a dialog with him. The fan of my former band has bought both of my novels and comments on everything I post, so it benefits me to continue our Internet relationship. I live thousands of miles from all my family, so my hope is other members will see my comment on Goofball’s status, reminding them I’m not so out of touch. The political article seems a little one-sided, but it’s a cause I habitually support, and I feel strangely like this poster counts on me to support her.
In other words, I like and express interest in none of these things because I sincerely like or am interested in them; rather, I want to appear to like and be interested in them. It isn’t me doing this, it’s this thing that looks very much like me. It’s my persona.
Nobody in the world doesn’t have a persona. Maybe there are a few who “are what they are.” I’m reminded of shopping at a grocery store in Alaska. A bearded man wearing an extremely dirty shirt walked up an aisle, followed by a beleaguered-looking woman with a cart. The man glanced around as he walked, pointing to this or that, and the woman dutifully pulled those items off the shelves and put them in the cart. There was no attempt to cover up the filth of his appearance, his domineering behavior. That was him. Deal with it.
Such honesty would be a relief if it weren’t so repulsive, and that must be how personas have served us for much of our history: It keeps people from seeing us in a way we don’t want to be seen.
The word “persona” is one I associate with movie stars from my childhood. Burt Reynolds: charming, funny, down-to-earth; a beacon of nonchalance in a world of worrywarts. Dolly Parton: a country girl with big boobs, a beautiful singing voice and nary an unkind word.
We tend to scoff at the idea that we non-celebrities have personas, but of course we do. I make a point to wave to my neighbor whenever I see him. This isn’t because I feel friendly or because I’m trying to keep up some kind of neighborly peace. I do it because, what kind of asshole would drive by without waving? So I wave.
All this focus on our personas is brought into prominent relief in the digital age, with social networking sites like Facebook giving us more control than ever over how we come across to our peers. We post only the most flattering pictures, update our statuses with our pithiest comments. No longer do I have to get in touch with that long-lost high school friend via telephone or in person. A simple click of a digital button says “I acknowledge you,” “You’re interesting,” “I like you.” And not just the high school friend gets the message but everyone who follows his posts.
Most interesting is the deflection cred that attaches to our personas through the liking and commenting on posts that carry a message we want to associate with. Political posts often serve as a surrogate that allows us to look smart, informed, compassionate, concerned. There’s no denying–even when we are being smart, informed, etc.–the moxie of attaching your persona to a fashionable issue. Celebs do it all the time. From the actor soliciting funds for hurricane relief, to the athlete who adopts a baby from Bangladesh, to the musician stumping for a presidential candidate, we notice, and no doubt cultivate our our own personas in kind.
So everyone with a Facebook page has a persona, and most are at least unconsciously clued into it. We want to participate in our digital communities, but only in ways that reflect well on us. Particularly curious is the label of those we’re connected with on Facebook as “friends.” Facebook says I have 780 friends, even though my real friends—the friends of my person—number a fraction of that. I was shocked when I heard some early adopters of Facebook were disappointed with this moniker. “They’re not really my friends,” one said. I sympathized, at least publicly—what a jerk I’d be to do otherwise—but privately I wondered what they expected.
Much of the magic of Facebook is the implication of friendship to those who might be something else entirely. As a writer, I’m constantly in need of people to buy, read and talk about my work. This has led to me making “friends” all over the place. I think some of the detritus of this friend tag eventually led Facebook to start Fan Pages. This, I gather, is where I’m supposed to encourage my “fans” to link, as opposed to, say, my mom. I imagine saccharine posts about upcoming releases, appearances and the like.
I dutifully created an Art Edwards fan page—everyone else seemed to have one—and now I ignore it. I don’t think I’ve ever posted an update on this page. I’d rather accost my “fans” with something closer to my person, giving the majority of them more to sink their teeth into, at the risk of turning off a few who might find my real self unappealing. Also, “friends” as opposed to “fans” seems a shrewd way to go. I wouldn’t want people to think my head has grown.
Personally, I don’t care for “friend” or “fan.” Neither seems to apply. How can I be friends with someone I’ve never met? And most of my supporters are over thirty, established with jobs and marriages and kids, and not likely to be starstruck should we meet in person. Can I really call them fans? I see them—at least the ones I don’t know personally—as patrons, a label that implies both some distance from the artist and some dignity to the one supporting the work. I can imagine a more appropriate social networking system for artists and other creative types with “patron” replacing “friend.”
Still, I’m aware that some of my “patrons” see themselves as something else. One regularly sends me links she thinks I’ll find interesting. Another mailed me a mix CD for Christmas. A third offered to help get my old band back together. I get the impression that a few of these folks see themselves as friends, and who am I to argue? Why is it important we see our relationship the same way? It’s unlikely such distinctions will ever have to be parsed out. Sure, we’re friends.
And the funny thing is, I recognize myself in their actions. I’m a fanboy of a few writers, and I send them emails and Facebook messages. I mailed a package of my novels to one of them. Another I met socially a time or two. Like my “friends,” I enjoy the feeling of communicating with these writers as colleagues, or on a more personal level. I’ve asked a couple of them questions about publishing, or even to act as a reference. I wonder, do they see me as a glorified fan, or at best a colleague from a distinctly lower strata of the food chain? I buy their books when they come out, so the blurred relationship is working for them.
And where’s harm? I get a book, they get a sale. It’s not like I’m not forced to participate in these relationships. What remotely public person doesn’t need to form connections with people of a skewed or more or less one-sided nature?
One way a persona can become harmful is when it strays too far from the actual person, so much so that an accidental surfacing of the real you can make you look pathetic. We all know examples of this from the persona-obsessed world of politics: John Edwards running for president while fathering a child out of wedlock; Bill Clinton’s famous, “I never had sexual relations with that woman;” any number of anti-gay Republican congressmen who turned out to be gay themselves. Perhaps most striking in recent times is the demolishing of Lance Armstrong’s persona after he admitted to using steroids while winning several Tour de France titles. These bald contradictions between person and persona make us wince, and we reserve a particular level of disgust when someone is caught in this gauche divide. I wonder if it’s because we recognize our own mild duplicities too clearly in reflection.
Few of us are in a position to become the next Lance Armstrong, but with Facebook many can focus too readily on their personas, or fail to understand the difference between their personas and their persons. Insistence that people focus on your persona as opposed to you is narcissism. Narcissists see their persons as despicable, so they have to keep your attention on their personas. A simple rule might be: Anything that makes it necessary for people to see my persona as opposed to my person is taking it too far.
Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be very careful about what we pretend to be.” Despite the new awareness of our personas in the Facebook age, there’s nothing new about orchestrating our public selves. Still, those new to the persona game can take a lesson from those who have pushed theirs too far. No doubt the closer your persona comes to your actual person, the better off you’ll be.