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 a writer. I love words and story. I'm also rather fond of my husband and my dog.