Sharing and Losing Control of an Online Persona

apocryphasamplereality[This post originally appeared on MediaCommons, in response to the question "What are the major social, legal, and professional stakes with sharing online"? Because ProfHacker has addressed similar questions about online identities and social media, I am reproducing the post here. I welcome your comments at the end.] 

When it comes to scholarship, pedagogy, and service — the three pillars of the professoriate — I am a staunch supporter of open access and the ideal of an intellectual commons that we can all learn from, discuss and critique, and build upon. But I recently had an unsettling experience that’s made me question my assumptions about making so much of my life public.

My experience played out against the milieu of Twitter, where I’ve been active for over five years. My Twitter stream is comprised of digital humanists, electronic literature creators and theorists, videogame studies folks, and a hodgepodge of writers and publishers in the humanities and beyond. My tweets run the gamut from thoughts about teaching to jokes about higher education to comments about current events. I also tweet about the balance between my professional and personal life, a balance that is a struggle to maintain, given that I commute several hundred miles every week. Occasionally, I find myself growing bored with Twitter and I play around with the medium itself. I think many of my online friends know this about me: I like to toe the line between seriousness and playfulness, and if I ever appear to be making things up, I probably am. That’s my Twitter persona.

On January 25, 2013, I began tweeting about what was supposed to be a routine commuter flight from Washington-Dulles International to my home in Charlotte, North Carolina. My tweets grew increasingly frantic though, as I began detailing an emerging, mysterious disaster. Over the course of the next few days I continued this narrative, which eventually wound up with my interrogation at the hands of a strange foreign agent. And finally, after four days of such tweets, following the release of a murky video to my family, my Twitter account disappeared. Poof! I was gone.

Of course, the whole story was made up. Or, mostly made up. It was true that I had been stranded for a time in Dulles that evening and really was concerned about making it home in time for my son’s birthday. The character of John was based on a real ticketing agent as well. But the disaster story was made up, which many of my readers recognized at the time. The culminating deletion of my Twitter account was very real though. It was a fitting resolution to my harrowing account of captivity and apparent escape — a mic drop as one of my followers put it.

I had planned the whole thing for a while. In fact, my Dulles disaster continued a story I had begun three years earlier, a thread I was thrilled some of my forensic-minded followers picked up on. And — truth be told — the story is not done yet. There is a third part, though when it will appear I cannot say. But it is planned.

After I deleted my Twitter account is when the unexpected and unsettling event happened.

Actually, two events. One offline and one on. First, someone whom I knew only in passing but who had been concerned that my Dulles tweets were not entirely fictive had tracked me down on campus, in real life. As I headed into my classroom to teach, the person was waiting there, outside the room. The person’s intentions were clearly to make sure I was okay, but I felt that a line between my Twitter persona and my real life identity had been blurred. What had begun as a tightly scripted story about paranoia and conspiracy had leaked into my daily life.

The second event occurred solely online. I had planned on remaining absent from Twitter for three weeks, time enough for a sense of finality to settle around my story. At that point I was intending on reactivating my Twitter account. (Twitter allows you to resuscitate a deleted account if you do it within 30 days of deletion.) But then, just days after deleting my account, a slew of Twitter accounts cropped up in my name, and if not exactly in my name, then in my image. Furthermore, these accounts appeared to be continuing the story of my captivity. Leonardo Flores has done a good job documenting these various apocryphal accounts (he found a total of nine accounts that purport to be me).

So this is it: my Twitter persona had been hijacked. The story I had planned for years had been hijacked. Plundered. Derailed. Even worse, because of my reputation for playfulness online, nobody wouldn’t believe these accounts weren’t me. I was devastated when I discovered the first of these accounts, and that devastation was swiftly followed by a feeling of disbelief and shame at my own reaction. I’m always going on and on about remixing this and mashing up that and the thrill of unexpected uses of your work and then when it happens to me I cry foul.

And I did cry foul, or as near as one can on Twitter. I filed several “impersonation” reports with the service, a surprisingly retro bureaucratic procedure that had me faxing a copy of my driver’s license to Twitter. Each of the three cases I reported were dismissed, the official response being that “Twitter users are allowed to create parody, commentary, and fan accounts” (See screenshot below).

A screenshot of an email from Twitter support.

Click to enlarge.

So the accounts in my name and with my avatar were not impersonating me so much as they were fan responses? I am gratified to think that I might have “fans,” except that no matter how much I protest — or because I protest? — that these account are not me, many people believe that they are.

The “Never Cry Wolf” irony of the situation (I have, I must admit, created fake Twitter accounts that I have denied ownership of) is not lost on me. And there’s an additional layer of irony in that what academics commonly fear when it comes to sharing their work online — that someone will steal it and publish it under his or her own name — is the exact opposite of what happened to me. Somebody else was supplying the work, and I only supplied the name. I was the byline to someone else’s story.

That’s what sharing online gets you. Share enough of your personality and you’ve given the world a blueprint to be you. And you’re not even that interesting.

In the end I have decided to surrender any pretense of control I have over my online persona. Or rather, I have come to recognize that there is a persona I control, but there are offshoots out there as well, like the non-canonical Never Say Never Again to my official Octopussy. We coexist. Maybe we even merge a little. It’s the social media update to the Turing Test: if a status update consistently tricks other people into thinking that it’s you, then it might as well be you. So I — and we — continue to share online, creating a commons, being common, until one of us once again does the uncommon.

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