Friday, October 9, 2015

Who are your avatars?

      Just about every time I sign up on-line for a discussion board, I have to create a "profile" -- my name, email address, maybe city/state, interests, type of equipment I use, and, oh, my "username"--that moniker that will be attached to whatever posting I put up on the board. Depending on how much I want to self-disclose, I may use some variant of my real name, or I may choose something quite disconnected from my name, but related to my interests (e.g., I've used "fishoutawatta" in several places).  And, in addition to the "username", there is often an option to add in some little picture that can help signal my posts (as if others can't associate me with my name), i.e., my "avatar."   Like the usernames, I've had several I've used. Multiple discussion boards; multiple identities.       Of course, it's not just on discussion boards that this split-identity phenomenon occurs.  I have two Facebook pages/sites that I maintain -- with a mixture of personal/professional information that goes out on both.  AND I have a Twitter feed.  (And -- shameless self-promotion -- you can link to FB to the right!).  Often I find myself in the predicament of trying to remember WHICH avenue of social media I'm utilizing, which audience I'm targeting.  Or, put another way, which "Gary" I am assuming?  Do I speak as "Chaplain Gary" (icon at the top of this blog-post!), or "Boy Scout Dad", or "Fisher Dude", or "Road Cyclist"?  
      The flip-side, of course, of this multi-faceted self-presentation is that those who read my posts/status updates/tweets only see a portion of who I am.  And they may form their own "avatar" that they associate with me . . . an avatar that may bear little resemblance to my real, whole, self.  Any response some of them might make, therefore, is not to me
 but to a limited version of me.  And I am certain that I do the same!      I recall being part of an on-line bulletin board many years ago (WAY before avatars....I was using a 2400 baud dial-up modem!). It was a pretty active discussion group; we were all involved in religion and the academy in various ways.  Many of us were going to attend a national meeting in Washington DC, and we agreed to meet for dinner.  Despite how well we thought we knew each other from our on-line interactions, seeing each other face-to-face was a wonderful experience.  The added nuances of body language and facial expression simply increased the depth of our conversations.  We began to know each other as real people, not just as characters at the end of a bulletin-board post.       Real conversation, not that mediated by technology, is the subject of a book by Sherry Turkle (at MIT):  Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. She argues that real, face-to-face conversations increase empathy and understanding. They also demand that we engage in some deeper self-reflection. Those qualities seem to be in increasingly short supply these days. Yet they are increasingly necessary in our segmented and polarized society.  It's probably time to put down the screens, and the images they project -- usually half-truths both about us and our "friends/followers", or the "other side".  And it's time to take up the hard work of real conversation, as challenging as it may be.        Contact a friend/acquaintance/colleague.  Pick a place.  Converse/connect...without electronics on the table. No avatars. Repeat.


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