Nothing provokes introspection quite like writing an ‘about me’ section for your website.
When I did just that only a few weeks ago, I spent a lot of time searching for the right way to begin my bio. Like the first lines of a novel, I needed something that was pithy, on brand, and which not only told the audience something about myself but left them burning to read more. After all let’s face it, most people rarely get through a full page of online media at the best of times.
So of course, being me, I instead proceeded to just cram in everything I could think of:
Seriously, everything – there were even family members I’d forgotten to tell about the imminent .5 kid before this went online (image taken by author).
Apart from the long-windiness of that opening (which, honestly, is pretty on-brand), what stands out to me is how easy it was to claim each of those elements of self as uncontested truth. In fact, of the seven separate things I claim to be, only two of them are hyperlinked to examples. The reader who stumbles across that page has no real way of knowing which of my other boasts are truly “About Terry” and which may have been… massaged to fit a narrative of my own creation.
Noticing this is hardly a revolutionary epiphany; the idea of an individual engaging in “strategic activities” to “convey an impression to others which it is in his interests to convey” (Goffman, in Ellisen et al: 417) has been explored widely, particularly in the realms of online dating, or when it comes to constructing multiple personal identities across various platforms. For instance, the language I’m using in this blog post is a strategic choice very different to that which I used when working as a consultant archaeologist, as this tweet from 2013 exemplifies nicely:
Today I got to use the phrase “palimpsest of stratum”, I think I win English in the office today.
— tmacmanus (@tcmacmanus) December 12, 2013
The impression of myself I am trying to convey is very different in that tweet to the conversational Terry I am promoting in this blog post. Both of these impressions are different to the all-encompassing snapshot of “Terry” I struggled to convey in my ‘About’ page. Why such variety?
The idea that an individual expresses different elements of themselves in different places has been identified by psychologists such as Edward Higgins as far back as 1987. In this paper, coincidentally published the year I was born, Higgins labels three ‘domains of the self’ which people express in different contexts: the “actual self,” (who we ‘are’) the “ideal self,” (who we want to be) and the “ought self” (who we feel we ‘should’ be) (Higgins, 1987: 319-340).
The tweet above is a prime example of my ought self – or at least, what that self was four years ago. I believed an archaeologist needed to sound clever (if a bit snooty), and thus felt the need to share this particularly egregious example of my ‘intelligent’ wordplay. Significantly, this is markedly different to the style of posts found on my Twitter stream since I left my job in archaeology and became a stay-at-home parent/creative writing student:
And so both kids decided they *need* to sleep in the top bunk tonight. This is going totally well and not at all exactly how you knew this was going to go the moment you read this tweet. #parenting #parentlife
— tmacmanus (@tcmacmanus) November 26, 2017
— tmacmanus (@tcmacmanus) August 11, 2017
Across these three posts, we see a microcosm of the way the digital space blends the three selves identified by Higgins. Living as a parent and working towards a career as a writer are two different things, yet as Smith and Watson note in their discussion of the way digital media preserves our information (2013: 74), both these tweets are archived within the same hierarchy; the casual observer has no way to tell which of these is a lived reality and which is an idealised version of the self.
“Behind The Mask” by Terence Chang (CC BY 2.0).
Of course, the casual observer might have some real trouble trying to delineate the various versions of “Terry” represented across all the digital media I have contributed to thus far. Having that curse common to creative people, there are few media I have consumed without wanting to create it myself. When I discovered podcasts in 2012, it wasn’t long before I found a way to ingratiate myself into one. When I discovered webcomics, sure enough I had to make one too. When I decided to make a real go of being a writer, I immediately combined those two elements to become a writer for a webcomic podcast site. Add in my long history of online fiction production through sites such as Scribophile and NaNoWriMo, and it becomes hard to tell where the line is drawn between the actual and the ideal self for “Terry” as my carer trajectory changes, and the expectations of what I ought to be doing with myself are in flux.
Like a good cheese or a bad fungus, Terry spreads quickly over most places
This gets ever more complicated when the elements of self explored in cyberspace begin to work their way into meatspace. Since I began creating content, I have been using my online presence to actively transform my ideal self into my actual self. Again, this is not an unique concept: as Ellisen et al notes (2006: 418), many people use the ‘visual anonymity’ that comes with the ‘asynchronous nature’ of computer-mediated-communication to express themselves in ways that they might otherwise find impossible. Less drastically, the line between ideal and actual personification of myself as a cartoonist or a singer becomes blurred when personas cross from the online realm into the physical:
Well, not too shabby for the first Average Joe zine! Kinda feels good to hold the paper in the hands 🙂 pic.twitter.com/pRyBIrvJ
— tmacmanus (@tcmacmanus) February 2, 2013
Screenshot of me singing in ‘Morwell Oktoberfest duet, 2015‘, retrieved by author on 11 December 2017.
In fact, an analysis of my online presence across social media interrelates with the mutability of that line. In contexts such as Facebook, where the vast majority of the people who see my posts also know me in ‘real life,’ I find that the content I post there is more reflective of my actual self as that changes over time. I post photos and videos of myself caring for the kids (my role as a houseparent), I moan about submitting university assignments minutes after the deadline has passed (my role as a student) and I use dedicated Facebook Pages to advertise the content I have created. Conversely, the spaces where I do not have offline relationships with the people who see my posts tend to get filled with mixture of actual and aspirational content, designed to promote the persona I am actively working to develop into reality.
And so, what of the “Terry” that prompted this introspection? Which self am I presenting to the visitors of Terry Talks Fiction who click on the ‘About Terry’ link? The actual, the ideal, or the ought?
All of them (I think that’s what I ought to say…). They are all me: who I have been, who I am, and who I am growing into.
Join me for the ride.
Approximate Length: 1178 words
Ellison, N., Heino, R. and Gibbs, J. 2006. ‘Managing Impressions Online: Self-Preservation Process in the Online Dating Environment’, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, vol. 11, issue 2, pp. 415-441.
Higgins, E. T. 1987. ‘Self-discrepancy: A theory relating self and affect.’ Psychological Review, vol. 94, issue 3, pp. 319-340.
Smith, S. and Watson, J. 2014. ‘Virtually Me: a Toolbox about Online Self-Presentation,’ in Poletti, A. and Rak, J., Identity Technologies: Constructing the Self Online, The University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, pp. 70-95.