The intersection between online identity and persona
I bought my first computer in 1997, so I was a bit slow to get online, and beyond fashionably late for social media. I didn’t sign up for any social platforms until one of my former high school classmates organised our 20-year reunion through Facebook in 2007. I joined Twitter in 2009, initially under my own name – AJ Macpherson – but I changed the handle at the end of 2012. More on that later.
My approach to being online was erratic and mostly driven by external forces such as research for an assignment – I studied for my undergraduate degree via Distance Education – or to make sure I got all the updates for that school reunion. Ploeg and Pridmore (2015) describe the voluntary sharing of information online through profiles, blogs and images as construction of digital identity, but the authors also point out that it “often involves a careful and conscious effort to experiment with and shape one’s image,” (Ploeg & Pridmore, 2015, p. 15). I wasn’t being intentional about what I signed up for, and I certainly wasn’t paying any attention to constructing any kind of online identity. I hadn’t even thought about it.
In late 2012 I accepted a publishing contract for my debut novel with Escape Publishing, a digital imprint of Harlequin, Australia. I needed to establish an online author presence, including a website and social media. The issue of online identity had just popped up on my radar, although I wouldn’t recognise it for what it was until late 2016, when studying ALC708: Blogging and Online Communication Techniques as part of a Master of Communication (Digital Media) course at Deakin University.
By any other name: Identity, branding and pseudonyms
Maggie Gilbert is the pen-name I chose the night I signed my first publishing contract with Escape. It was a considered choice – I’d had the domain name parked for years. I had a couple of pen-names and matching domains lined up, as well as a domain for the name I’d already been using in the romance-writing community for five years – AJ Macpherson. I settled on Maggie Gilbert for a couple of reasons.
I already had a story published under the name AJ Macpherson (a rather sensual paranormal tale; if you’re interested you will find it in the Allen & Unwin anthology How Do I Love Thee? edited by Valerie Parv) that was quite different to the forthcoming Escape title, Riding on Air, a sweet, contemporary young adult romance with horses in it. I also wanted an author name that was ordinary but memorable, easy to spell and pronounce, and would look balanced on a book cover. In short, a name I could brand. Goldman and Zagat (2016) state that while branding used to be something only companies had to worry about, in the modern digital world personal branding matters to almost everyone.
So the decision to be Maggie Gilbert was, from the beginning, strategic. At the first Romance Writers of Australia conference I attended after signing my contract, I was excited to be attending as a published author and I was to get my ‘First Sale’ ribbon, something I’d been coveting for six years, since my first conference in 2007. The name on my conference name badge reflected the published author ‘me’: Maggie Gilbert.
And then a funny-not-funny thing happened the first time I met someone new during the morning-tea break. I went to introduce myself, and I stumbled. Should I say AJ? Or should I say Maggie? Many of the writers at the conference had known me as AJ for years. Who was I going to be, to them? Or to this new person I was meeting for the first time? Who was I here?
Two wordsmiths on Twitter: Identity vs persona
Maggie Gilbert is a persona. I’ve drawn on selected aspects of my identity to create her, and her ‘identity’ online and in the real world is mindfully curated. In this approach I have unwittingly complied with the guidance offered by Goldman and Zagat (2016), who advise against creating a unique and appealing but inauthentic persona as this can be difficult to maintain over time. In the SlideShare presentation below, I’ve expanded on some issues around identity and persona and I’ve highlighted the intersection between the identity of AJ and the persona of Maggie. The photographs I’ve included of a coffee ‘snap’ from each Twitter account are an example of an interest that is relevant to and can be expressed by both the identity and the persona online.
SlideShare created in Canva by AJ Macpherson, copyright and credits as noted on slide 5.
Coffee Snaps: by AJ Macpherson (L) and Maggie Gilbert (R).
Maggie is the author of books for young and new adults; readers of her books may be as young as 11 or 12; accordingly, she uses appropriate language on Twitter. Goldman and Zagat talk about “managed distinction” as the ability to stand out (2016, p. 18) and highlight the importance of taking a particular tone and using unique language for communication through an online brand. Maggie Gilbert has a social media policy which includes two firm rules: 1) be nice and 2) protect her author brand. Gratton (2012) discusses the power of personal branding on Twitter and it has added meaning when viewed in the context of self-presentation and identity:
“Twitter allows us to become both commander and editor of our personal world; to dissect the information that we choose to receive each day and to reshape it into patterns that best define our own value propositions.” (Gratton, 2012, p. 12)
AJ Macpherson is a person, not a brand, and hadn’t been present on Twitter since late 2012 when I announced I had a book coming out under a pen name and was changing my Twitter handle accordingly. Whenever I was on Twitter for the next four years I was either being Maggie Gilbert, or I was running a Twitter account for a corporate employer. In all those cases, I was performing in the role of a persona or a brand. In the case of Maggie Gilbert, romance author, I was shooting for both; I was trying to forge her persona into a brand.
Smith and Watson state that “online venues are preferred vehicles for composing, circulating, monitoring and managing one’s brand,” (2014, p. 79) and Twitter is an ideal platform for this purpose. I wasn’t necessarily using Twitter effectively; case in point, when I went to look at the Maggie Gilbert Twitter Analytics as research for this piece, I discovered I had never turned the analytics on. It’s just one aspect of the Maggie Gilbert persona – or brand – I’ll be aiming to manage better in the future.
For ALC708, I am using a Twitter account where I have once again changed my Twitter handle from its original form. I started the subject using a handle I’d created for a different purpose, but I quickly realised the audience I’d be targeting with that handle wasn’t gelling with the audience composed of Deakin staff and students. Smith and Watson refer to the importance of audience, asserting that “online venues assume, invite and depend on audiences,” and posing the question, “How is audience interaction incorporated into the self-presentation?” (2014, p.74). I knew I needed to self-present in a manner that would make sense for the audience. The infographic below highlights some of the differences between the Twitter activity from AJ and Maggie.
I had begun to wish I had a ‘personal’ Twitter account, and I saw this as the ideal opportunity. In this I am not alone; Aresta et al. allude to the ongoing challenges in maintaining separate self-representations online, and that as users develop relationships, there comes a time when “they may feel the need to build a more consistent presence, one that reflects their whole identity,” (2015, p. 75). Online identity was back on my radar, and this time I knew it for what it was. I knew I wanted to find an online space where I could be me, and not a brand or a persona. I’ve included three tweets from each of my Twitter accounts; you can see the difference in content and language, but also the underlying connection.
Who am I here?
We all have multidimensional identities, and we select which of these aspects we draw attention to – and which of them we keep veiled – depending on the circumstances. According to Goldman and Zagat (2016), being multifaceted is part of being human, and it can sometimes make people feel like they need to juggle different identities. We also all have a private self that we reveal only to those closest to us, maybe only to the faithful family dog, who can’t judge and whose love is unconditional. Perhaps there are facets we acknowledge only in the secret, dark recesses of our own soul.
This discernment may be considered performativity and it’s certainly selective self-presentation, but that doesn’t make it any less authentic to apply our judgement to how we construct, project and curate our identity and any associated personas. According to Smith and Watson, all self-presentation is performative and “authenticity is an effect, not an essence,” (2014, p.75). Goldman and Zagat would agree, stating that “authenticity comes from the belief that what you put out there is genuine and honest,” (2016, p.18). We are whoever we believe we are.
‘Who am I here?’ is not just a catchy blog post title. It is the critical question at the heart of our identity, whether we are present in the online or the actual world.
Word count: 1036 words not including in-text citations, reference list or captions.
Aresta, M, Pedro, L, Santos, C, & Moreira, A 2015, 'Portraying the self in online contexts: context-driven and user-driven online identity profiles', Contemporary Social Science, 10, 1, pp. 70-85.
Goldman, J & Zagat, AB 2016, Getting to like, Career Press, Wayne, NJ.
Gratton, S 2012, Follow Me! Creating a personal brand with Twitter, Wiley, Indianapolis, IN.
Ploeg, I, & Pridmore, J 2016, Digitizing identities: Doing identity in a networked world, Routledge, New York, NY.
Smith, S & Watson, J 2104, 'Virtually me: A toolbox about online self-presentation' in A Poletti, & J Rak, (eds), Identity technologies: Constructing the self online, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, WI.
My broader online activity
I have been active on my Twitter handle: @aj_mac_pherson
I have blogged:
Don't get out of your comfort zone
Putting it out there
Making of a video star (or not)
Book review: What We Saw
I have made media:
Two videos: one with another student and one solo.
An informative visual aid
I’m studying at the moment, and yes, I’m probably old enough that this automatically qualifies me as a life-long learner. It’s true that I love learning (although I confess assessment tasks are not my favourite) and I expect to be learning stuff until I die.
Like a lot of writers, I lean towards the introverted end of the scale. I don’t think that’s too surprising; writing is something you have to do by yourself, so unless you’re OK with spending large chunks of time on your own, you aren’t going to get much writing done.
However, much of our professional lives depend on successfully interacting with other people. This is just as true whether you’re a writer, a tech entrepreneur, a bank teller, a Fortune500 CEO or a student of digital communications.
I’ll do anything, just don’t make me do that
I doubt it’s news to anyone that interacting with people can be a challenge for introverts, but the truth is that networking is a daunting proposition for a lot of people, regardless of where you sit on the introvert - extravert spectrum.
Networking is of course only one thing that has generally lived outside my comfort zone. Other items on this list include:
As a communications professional I now do – or will need to do in the future – all the things on my list and more. Well not cliff diving; there’s no job I want that much.
As a digital media communications professional much of the work you do is behind the scenes but this is not the case when you are a digital media communications student. Now that I am studying communications, some of the items on the list that would have been optional for a comms professional (like making a video of myself) have become ‘must-dos’.
Don’t get ‘out’ of the comfort zone: stretch it to fit
While writing is not always easy for me, it’s something that does sit mostly within my comfort zone, because I’ve done it enough to be used to it. Even when it’s difficult, it’s at least familiar. I say mostly in the comfort zone, because writing can be an enormous source of stress for a working writer – but that’s an entirely different blog post right there.
I learned something really valuable in the last twelve months, but I didn’t learn it from writing. I discovered it while developing networking skills in my corporate job, and I applied it successfully recently when I decided I needed to do more videoing of myself to prepare for a video assignment.
This is: the best way to get used to something is to do it. By doing something – and not worrying about anything beyond the act of doing, i.e. no comparisons or quality checks – you can get more comfortable doing that thing even if you’ll never love it.
I believe that being comfortable doing something is a wonderful foundation (and a critical first step) for doing it successfully.
I can now go into a room of complete strangers, approach a group and begin a conversation. I don’t love it, I’m not even completely comfortable doing it, but I can network successfully and I’m meeting some amazing people. I’m able to pay enough attention to the conversation to enjoy meeting these people, because I’m not so uptight about worrying about how to talk to them.
We hear a lot about ‘practice makes perfect’ but that has always stressed me out. I am a perfectionist (yeah, there’s a shock confession) so that kind of advice just doesn’t help me. Worrying about how well I’m doing something has always been a major stumbling block in most of the things I’ve done, including training horses in dressage, writing fiction, studying, and my corporate career.
Being comfortable can be a good thing
I needed to network to be able to perform satisfactorily in my job. It was expected of me. Much like the shift from being a comms professional to a comms student, when I accepted this job, networking had moved from the optional list to the compulsory one. And a funny thing happened: networking became another one of those unpleasant-to-think-about-tasks like registering the car or cleaning the gutters. Unlike these annual events, I had to network frequently. So I learned that by doing something repeatedly, I can get used to it.
The first step is not to practice something to get better at it. That comes later.
It’s to do it to get used to it.
My advice for fellow students who are still at the total freak-out stage about recording themselves on audio or video is to find somewhere you can sit down with your video camera or your phone and get started. Don’t think about how good it is or if you’ll need to let anyone else see it; don’t think about anything beyond doing it. Make the video. Record your voice.
Do it, learn something from the results and do it again. And again.
I’m going to keep applying this to my own audio-visual (mis)adventures, and I’m also keen to apply this in other areas of my life where a fear is stopping me from doing.
Anyone know of a suitable cliff?
This is a blog post about a story, Game On.
If you want to skip the waffle and go straight to the story, you can read it here.
Game On is the tidied up version of a short story I had to write for a course using the Hero’s Journey archetypal story structure as a basis. Not on my top ten list of favourite assignments.
I’d had this idea for a story about some teens who run into big trouble in a virtual world while gaming. Game On is not that story, although I do hope to write it one day.
I know almost nothing about online gaming (which will be quickly apparent to any gamers who read the story; I beg your forgiveness and maybe you should get the tissues ready for any tears that accompany your howls of laughter) and I struggle to apply the Hero Journey structure, so I decided to combine the two for the purpose of the exercise.
There was a 2000 word maximum – anyone who’s familiar with any epic fantasy would know that’s not usually how quickly a Hero‘s Journey story unfolds. It was, shall we say, a bit of a challenge.
This isn’t a very good story but it got me through the final subject I needed for my diploma. There’s also a lot I actually like about it; it definitely stretched me to come up with the concept, structure it using the Hero’s Journey and keep within the word count. I understood even at the time that I was learning a lot by writing something so different to what I’d usually write.
I tend to have themes emerge in my fiction and this story is no different in that respect. I’m also a sponge and I absorb what’s happening around me. You can see some of that if you read at that deeper level and I’d definitely love to have a conversation with anyone who is interested in discussing any themes they find here.
Above all, though, as this is the semester and the place for me to develop and explore, I’m sharing the story here.
Happy reading. Or not. No, seriously, you can stop at any time.
Chat open 13.53pm------
SmartyCat>o<13: Still not interested
NinjaWar007: Come on, Kat, you know you want to
SmartyCat>o<13: It smells wrong
NinjaWar007: It’s virtual reality, Kat
NinjaWar007: it can’t smell like anything
SmartyCat>o<13: If something seems too good to be true
NinjaWar007: majenik already agreed and obvs I’m in
NinjaWar007: we need the trio or none of us get the link to the game interface
SmartyCat>o<13: Why us? dodgy
NinjaWar007: Who cares? Come on. Imagine being first
SmartyCat>o<13: short memory
SmartyCat>o<13: forgot what happened last time?
NinjaWar007: you need to get over that.
SmartyCat>o<13: U didn’t listen to me
NinjaWar007: I will this time
SmartyCat>o<13: this gives me the same feeling
NinjaWar007: Are you in or out? Plenty Navs begging me for your spot
SmartyCat>o<13: so use one of them
NinjaWar007: want the best this could lead to big things
SmartyCat>o<13: it’s too weird we even have this opportunity
SmartyCat>o<13: don’t these developers have their own gamers?
NinjaWar007: I think this is like a job interview
NinjaWar007: You know how bad I want this
SmartyCat>o<13: I don’t like it
NinjaWar007: What are you now chicken?
SmartyCat>o<13: better chicken than dead.
NinjaWar007: being ridiculous now.
NinjaWar007: You’re in or you’re out. Time to man up
NinjaWar007: Well, woman up.
SmartyCat>o<13: Ur a sexist pig
NinjaWar007: And you’re the best Navigator there is. Are you in?
SmartyCat>o<13: Damn it. Yes. I’m in
Here’s the link. Just to be clear, we cannot share this link – that confidentiality agreement you signed is serious shit!
Did you get the new headsets? It won’t work without them. If you haven’t got yours yet text me asap.
Nick, when you follow the link then you need to log in as the Magician and Kat you’re taking the Nav role. I know you wanted to try Navigator on this one Nick but we only get one shot to impress and Kat is still the best around. And dude, you fucking rock at that magic shit and both me and Kit-kat can barely do more than a don’t-see-me.
PM me when you’re logged in.
What the everlovin’ fuck? The keyboard is gone. My computer screen. My hands. Black. Sensory loss. The headset is too tight, it’s squeezing my skull, ow, stop, get it off, get it off! I’m going to kill Tez if I was right and he was wrong. Again. Why didn’t I trust my gut? Again.
I can see my hands again. That’s the good news. The bad news is they don’t look exactly like my hands, and this is definitely not my dorm room, if the giant hedge in front of me and the sun beating down on my back is any guide. I push down dizziness and imminent panic and take stock. This isn’t the first time this has happened, after all. A quick scan of what I can see of myself confirms it; I am my navigator avatar, right down to the satchel crossing the front of my body between Lara Croft-like boobs and the periscope clenched in my right fist. I’ll be taller, stronger and smarter than I am IRL, and, because this game is guaranteed just as man-centric as most, I’ll be smoking hot, with long legs and these fantastic gravity-defying tits. I can’t see my arse, but I bet it’s just as good, and the tight leather leggings and vest showcase every asset. IRL I’m medium height, skinny, and flat chested with a ten year old boy’s butt. I guess the first time I picked this avatar I was having some wish fulfilment or something, but now I could give a shit how sexy I look, although I’ll take the longs legs and muscled butt and the contrary-to physics speed and strength. I turn my head, trying to see past or over the towering hedge, as the unaccustomed weight of my heavy waist length braid slides across my shoulders. Groping on top of my head, I am unsurprised to find spectrum goggles perched up there.
I’m still coming to grips with the issue that I am – once again – inside a virtual reality game sim when Nick and Tez stumble through a gap in the hedge to my right. A gap, I see, that immediately closes behind them.
So this is a maze quest of some kind. I’d punch Tez, but in his warrior avatar form he’d just hand me my arse.
“You’re so fucking dead when we get out of here,” I tell him instead.
He glances down at me, blue eyes flashing from atop a seven-feet tall muscled mountain. Again, so not what he looks like IRL. The quicker I can get us out of here the better. One of the reasons I’m the best virtual reality navigator around is my ability to retain my real world awareness and connection, however tenuous. One of the biggest problems with the new vr tech? People can’t retain who they are and where they are. The game environment seems real to them, which means there is no motivation to get through the game and back to the real world. Because as far as they know, this is the real world.
There’s billions begging to be made here, but until the tech companies can sort out these slightly life-threatening glitches there’s no way they can go commercial. So they keep finding dummies like us to test them. I knew I shouldn’t have listened to Tez when he assured me this time would be different. Yet again it’s going to be up to me to navigate us through the game until we complete this phase, so we can get to an exit point. Fuck.
I rummage in the satchel for the stuff I know must be there; information or clues or gadgets to help us with our quest objective. I’ve got no sensation of headset or keyboard, no sensory connection to the real world at all, so everything we need has to be in here.
“What’s our exit key?” I ask Tez, suspecting by the way he’s standing there, scanning for threats, flexing the gigantic muscles, that it’s probably too late.
“I.. don’t know about that,” he says, though there’s a puzzled flash in those too-blue eyes that suggests something of the realworld Tez is not too far down from the surface. I don’t even bother checking with Nick, because there won’t even be that twinkle. It’s why he’s never going to be a safe navigator while this vr is still so bleeding edge.
My groping fingers pass over some small lumpy unrecognisable objects and then brush against the unmistakeable crackle of stiff paper. Ignoring the other doodads for now I withdraw the parchment.
Yes, it’s a maze.
Yes, it’s a quest, with a treasure in the centre of the maze.
It’s the ‘here be dragons’ bits on the map that bother me, though.
I drop the periscope into the satchel and flip the flap closed, giving me both hands to work the map. There’s no convenient ‘X’ or ‘You are here’ to even let us know what side of the maze we’re standing on, and the sun hasn’t moved enough to give us any guidance. I decide to go to our left, because the nearest gap marked in the hedge lies in that direction.
Without a word, the Warrior and the Magician fall in behind me. They may not remember who they are IRL but they know what their roles are in here. It’s up to me to get us to our objective, secure the treasure, and hopefully find a game exit to get us back. The dragons? I won’t worry about those just yet. Let’s just hope that it’s background colour, rather than a literal description of the tests that await us. And if there are dragons, it will be up to the Mage and the Warrior to defeat them, not me. I find a gap in the hedge, and lead the others in.
We’re doing far too well. We’ve had to double back a few times when the map wasn’t accurate or the hedges moved, I wasn’t sure which. Mage and Warrior have fought off the usual shit, trolls, goblins, ghouls, the warrior – Tez – taking down the fighters and Nick as his magician avatar foiling the magical beasties with spells and glamour. Our satchels and quivers though are getting ominously light as I navigate our way towards the centre of the maze, and I am still worried about those dragons.
We push through another of those shifty gaps in the hedge and pop out into a space that, to my dismay, once again doesn’t correspond with the sweat-grimed map. We are so close. Damn it. I look left, to a dead end that shouldn’t be there, and then right, where the darkness of a gap appears in the greenery only a few feet away.
“Are we lost?” Tez the warrior says accusingly, peering over my shoulder at the map.
“No. A disagreement between the map and the maze. Unsurprisingly.”
“Which way, navigator?” the Magician asks me.
I hesitate, because I don’t know.
“This way,” Tez says, pointing his sword to the gap to our right.
“No, this way,” I say, aware the instant he says it that he’s wrong. “That way is too easy and too obvious. Likely to be a trap.”
“There is no way through there,” the warrior says.
I look at my map, and then peer towards the wall of green. The map, and my gut, tells me we should go that way. I can’t remind him that he promised he’d listen to me this time, because he won’t remember.
The warrior pushes past me and starts to move right and I leap after him and grab him by the strap crossing his broad back. “Stop.”
He does stop, but I can feel it’s a hesitation rather than a change of heart. I have to convince him. Last time I let Tez’s warrior instincts to rush in overrule my navigator sense and we got annihilated. And that ‘virtual’ part isn’t entirely accurate; take a bad enough beating in here and it has nasty, potentially lethal impact that carries over into the real world. I had to trust myself, this time. I’d agreed to participate against my gut feeling, and I make a promise to myself that this really is going to be the last time. But I have to get us out of here first.
“This way,” I say firmly. “I’m the navigator, so trust me.”
He stares down at me, and I looked steadily back, holding his gaze. Finally, the battle-fire in those ice-blue eyes dims, and he gives me a nod, indicating I should lead.
I return the nod, and then lead us in the right direction.
My instincts have been right. As we draw close to the dead end, the bushes inch back, creating the gap that was supposed to be there according to the map. And there, beyond, is the treasure, a golden chest that will contain not just riches, but our entry through to the next phase of the game. And wherever there is an entry to a new game level, there is an exit option.
As we step into the centre of the maze, a large scaly claw appears from a gap in the maze. Of course, it’s between us and the treasure. I tuck the map into my satchel and step back.
“You’re up, big guy,” I say to Tez. As the warrior rushes to battle the dragon standing between us and the treasure, I gesture for the magician to go throw some spells to help slow the beast down. I’ll sneak around and grab the treasure chest, and hopefully get us out of here before the dragon can kill us and eat us.
All words and images ©AJ Macpherson 2016
I'm a writer. I love words and story. I'm also rather fond of my husband and my dog.