July 23, 2010

How Do You Convince the Online World of Who You ‘Really’ Are? ~ Adam Johnson

An Online Identity.

Recently I had to take a good hard look at how I present myself on the interwebs. Let’s back up a little bit. A couple of years ago, I started blogging on the Blogger platform, with the title of the blog “Home Brew Dharma”. It grew out of my love of home brewing, and my (then) recent exploration into the world of Buddhism.  The first few posts had me using home brewing as a metaphor for impermanence, self, and other dharma/philosophical themes. That lasted about a half a dozen posts. Then, I was stuck with “Home Brew Dharma” whether I liked it or not. It turned out to be okay for awhile. It was a little edgy for the Buddhist world (cough, 5th precept, cough) and I liked that. It helped to distinguish me from some of the dharmasaurs on the net. Plus when all else failed, I could just post up a home brew recipe or two.

And then a change began to occur. My previous assumptions about the dharma began to erode, and a (slightly) more mature understanding has begun to take hold. And with that I started to watch some of my online behavior, of which I wasn’t too proud. I had to wonder if it somehow had something to do with the online identity I had created. And I started to wonder how my online identity reflected my “real life” identity, if indeed it did at all. Or maybe my online identity is more real than the person I pretend to be at work and at home.

So I started to look at all the ways I (and everyone else) crafted my online identity. First, was the avatar. There was a time when it was a dharma wheel or Tyler Durden or some tribal design, or a picture of some brewing hops, but I had to dump those. It made me less accountable. When I put my face out there, and use my real name when commenting on blogs, or here on ele, or Huff Post or wherever, I feel a bit more connected to what I’m saying, and hold myself more accountable to what I’m saying. And I like replying to people, rather than “rawfooddude23”. It just feels a little more human. And I’ve noticed that my replies tend to be more tempered when replying to a Nathan or Julie than some random avatar and an anonymous handle. So I put myself out there in the hopes that others will feel the same way.

I also noticed that I’ve pigeonholed myself. I’ve put myself into a box that I can’t escape from. I’m homebrewdharma. I can’t get rid of that. I’m the guy that home brews, and practices Buddhism, and that’s it. I tried to step into someone else’s shoes and look at other people’s perception my online image, and realized that I was probably discounted and scoffed at merely by my avatar and handle alone. And while those types of actions might not be fully justified, I was only adding fuel to the fire. I only home brew a half a dozen times a year or less. And Buddhism is only part of what makes me, me. I’m also a Father, a Husband, a reader, a gamer, an analyst ninja by day and diaper changing hokey-pokey-er by night.

But I’m not alone in crafting this “one hat” version of myself. There are plenty of vegans, local foodies, PETA, liberal, intactivists, atheists, conservatives etc… that seem to have pigeonholed themselves into this one fraction of themselves. So all we ever see of “rawfooddude23” is about how raw food is the best and only way to eat, recipes about raw food, and info about raw food. There has to be more to this guy, right? Or do we only care about “rawfooddude23”, and not “Doug” who is the man behind the handle?
But a problem does begin to emerge when we spread ourselves wide open in the online world. Take twitter for instance. I recently opened an account there, and started to fill up my following list with twitter Buddhists. And then, I found a dad in Seattle, and started following him. He became my gateway tweeter into the world of dad blogs and tweeters, and now I’m following tons of dads as well. It’s great being able to connect with all these people, and absorb all the info coming my way. But I get apprehensive about posting. Do the dads really want to hear about the sutra I just found on Access to Insight? Does the iTwangha really want to hear about how I did the hokey pokey (seriously, my 1 ½ year old is obsessed) a dozen times today?

Next I looked at how our pigeonholing can backfire on us. The internet has fueled the fires of extremism to the point where there is rarely a middle ground to be found, and there is rarely a civil conversation to be had. Instead we have debate and argument. Debate has its place, but if you are genuinely committed to learning about how others think and feel, discussion is what you should be engaging in. Unfortunately this rarely happens. Instead the “vegGurl3” who broke down and had a bite of shrimp two years ago isn’t really a vegetarian anymore. And “liberalguy” isn’t a real liberal because he believes in fiscal responsibility. We’re only allowed to take the most extreme, absolutist position, and this is where our online identity can come back to bite us in our ass.  A Buddhist can’t agree with an atheist’s position on such and such because they are a member of a religion – the enemy! A vegan could never, ever, agree that eating sustainable grass-fed local beef is a better solution than factory farming because that would go against their absolutist position (as well as everyone else’s presumptions regarding said absolutist position). And if you do happen to go against the presumed grain, you’re either a liar or a troll. There is no middle ground online. Because there is the left, and there is the right. Black and white. No shades of grey.

I’ve wondered often enough if what we do online could be considered “real”. But of course it’s real (kind of). These words came from me, were written by me. They are really here on the internet. This online identity is probably no less real than any of the other identities that I wear and discard throughout the day. But ultimately, all of these are fake. Because the identities we create for ourselves whether in the real world or online are all just versions of ourselves that we want people to see. It’s just easier to make that distinction online. And that’s why we love the online world and our online identities. Because they are easy. And they allow us to present ourselves in the best possible light, always making the right decisions. It’s easy to represent myself as a local-phile. It’s easy to represent myself as a serious student of the dharma. It’s easy to represent myself as someone that has a solid understanding of ‘x’, because everything I would need to know is a few clicks of the mouse away. It’s easy to represent myself however I choose; all I need is the right anonymous avatar and handle.

And of course, it’s easy to discard these online identities if they become too real or too messy. And it’s easy to distance yourself from the pain you might experience online. And it’s easy to avoid that pain altogether if you’re just a ghost on a forum. And it’s easy to dish out that pain online. You don’t have to deal with the repercussions if you don’t want to like you would in real life. You don’t have to be accountable. You don’t have to feel the shame and sorrow you would normally feel if you caused someone that hurt in real life, because you’ll never see that look in their eye. I can fake my way through a workday at a job I don’t really care for. I can pretend to enjoy a friend’s cooking even when I can barely choke down the food. But I can’t go around yelling at people, calling them names, telling them their belief system is shit right to their face. I don’t have that in me. That’s not the real me. And that’s not the online me I want to present. Because I want the online me to reflect the person you might bump into in the used book store looking for bargains. Or the me you’ll find chasing my son at the park. Or the me you’ll find when I’m frustrated by my lack of sleep. I don’t want there to be a separate online me, one that my friends in real life wouldn’t recognize. Would your parents, friends, co-workers recognize the online you?

In forging my new online identity, I’m trying to embrace the gray, trying to reside there. Because in “real life” that is usually where I find myself. I wouldn’t consider myself a liberal or conservative, because I find both positions to be lacking. I don’t think liberals have the best and only solution every time. Neither do conservatives. Both have their strong points, and we should be able to recognize that. Same thing when I’m at work. I don’t always agree with the decisions or policies my company makes, but I don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. I like hip-hop, but only sometimes and I’m super picky. I consider myself a vegetarian, but sometimes I’ll eat some meaty leftovers from my son. I hate wasting food, and I hate wasting meat even more because I know how it got to my son’s plate. That’s the real me. That’s where I live when I’m not typing online. So why is it so hard to bring that pragmatism into my dealings online?

So I’ve decided to always use my picture when given the choice for an avatar. (I understand for security reasons or deep personal reasons, some people just can’t do that, but most of us can). And I’m moving my personal blog away from a one-faceted version of me, to one that is able to encompass all of the things I wish to share. I’ll continue to use my name when applicable (except my twitter handle – my name is Adam Johnson, guess how many of us there are out there), rather than “homebrewdharma”. I think it’s easier to connect with Adam.  And I’m going to stay in the gray, because that’s where Adam spends most of his time. And that’s where you’ll get to know me best.


Adam is a 20-something father, husband,  home-practicing Buddhist, blogger, home brewer and Michigan transplant currently living in Arlington, WA. He spends most of his time working in his cube and spending time with his family.  At his best he is an explorer and leader, at his worst he is a lazy couch potato.

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