Blogging With Split Personalities

The following article will appear in Riseup.net‘s upcoming educational publication about safety and security in online organizing. You get to have the sneak peak here.

Blogging with Split Personalities:
How I Created and Reconciled My Separate Spaces On the Web

by Sarah Dopp

Hi, my name is Sarah, and I’m a compulsive blogger. It all started in high school when I created a website under a pseudonym and used it to tell stories about my love life. It was a thrilling and introspective project that resulted in a lot of great writing. Unfortunately, though, I was so terrified someone would connect it to me that I never saved a backup copy. That website has since expired, and those words are now lost forever in the murky underbelly of the Internet. First lesson learned: If I’m not going to claim something, I can’t hold onto it.

My next blog was more open but less personal. In my first year of college, I used my student web space (this was 2001) to keep an online journal about my day-to-day interests and experiences. I kept each post short and simple and figured no one would care about it except for me. I was wrong. A few months into my semester, I discovered that the school’s student websites were listed on an obscure page at the main college website, which you could find if you browsed deep enough into the menus. Prospective freshmen, it turned out, were inclined to browse that deep. Since I was one of the only people at the college making use of my student web space, I started receiving daily emails with questions about the campus from high school seniors all over the country. Second lesson learned: I can give myself a voice, but I can’t control what it means to other people.

I spent the following summer in China, living for four months on my own after a brief study abroad session ended. The cultural differences were jarring to me, and I needed a way to tell the stories to my family and friends back home. I started a blog on Blogger.com with a few self-imposed restrictions: I wouldn’t tell anyone in China that I was doing it, and I wouldn’t use my last name or my Chinese name. The arrangement was perfect — I could speak freely about my discomforts and misadventures without offending anyone around me, and I could keep my U.S. contacts aware of how I was doing. Unfortunately, my sensitive grandparents also heard about the blog, read some of my more dramatic stories, and became very upset about how dangerous my overseas situation seemed to them. From then on, I continued to tell exciting stories, but I made sure to edit my posts to emphasize how safe I was. Third lesson learned: I have a responsibility to respect my audience, but I get to decide how to do that.

My next major blog started off public and then later became private. I created it on Livejournal.com, wrote under my real name, and used it to speak freely about my emotions, opinions, and relationships. I was wrestling with gender and sexuality issues, and I needed a place to write it all down. I shared it with my friends but didn’t mention it to my family or work contacts, and just trusted that it would stay off their radar. A year into the project, I realized I was censoring my own writing out of fear that it would be discovered, and I started to resent it. Livejournal, fortunately, has excellent privacy settings, so I changed the entire blog over to “friends only” access. The downside was that my journal became harder to read — friends have to log in to their Livejournal accounts in order to view it, and it can no longer be found by the casual web surfer. The upside, though, is that I feel (mostly) free and safe to write without editing myself, and that’s an incredible gift. Fourth lesson learned: Sometimes I need to choose between freedom and visibility.

After a few years of living behind a locked Livejournal, I realized I missed having a public voice, so I started another blog. I created it at SarahDopp.com, considered it my professional web presence, and knew it would stick with me for a long time. I was careful to only write things made me look respectable, reliable, and valuable. This created a clear division of content in my life: things that belonged in my locked Livejournal, and things that belonged on my public blog. Since I had different audiences in each space, I started to develop two separate reputations: people either perceived me as professional and clear-headed or as messy and neurotic. In my less confident moments, this affected my self-image, and I began to think of myself as dishonest. Fifth lesson learned: When I’m managing multiple personas, I’m not representing myself as a whole person.

With all these lessons piling up under my belt, I decided to try my hand at something new. I started a blog called Genderfork.com, where I posted daily photos of androgynous people and discussed issues around gender variance. This project was way outside of my comfort zone, so I used a pseudonym and only told my closest friends about it. I was afraid that it wouldn’t go well, that people would leave abusive comments, or that it would deter future clients and employers from hiring me. Miraculously (to me), the project was successful. People left encouraging comments, thanked me for creating the site, engaged in the conversation, and recommended photos for me to use. I became proud of the project and wanted to share it with other people, but realized I wasn’t set up to do that. Sixth lesson learned: My separate personas do not get to take credit for each others’ accomplishments.

Finally, my web identities became too fractured for me to manage, and I decided it was time to reconcile it all. I came out on my professional blog as queer, announced myself as the editor of Genderfork, and braced myself for a fall-out of drama and controversy. The results were surprising. I received an endless stream of support and encouragement and my professional relationships strengthened immediately. Within two months, I was interviewed on television and the radio about my grapplings with identity issues, was invited to guest blog on several websites, and was asked to be on a conference panel about “coming out” on the Internet. My blog readership has grown considerably, and I feel protected by a safety net of people who are emotionally invested in encouraging me to be myself. Seventh lesson learned: the general public is much more capable of accepting me than I ever gave them credit for.

The Five Rules of Persona Management

1. Use separate spaces. If you never ever want your personas to be connected with each other, make sure you’re accessing the web from different IP addresses. Public computers at the library are ideal — they’re very unlikely to be traced back to you. If privacy isn’t critical, on the other hand, try using multiple web browsers (e.g., Firefox for one persona and Safari for another). This will allow you to stay logged into websites that both of your personas use and maintain separate sets of bookmarks.

2. Choose your tools wisely. Are you speaking to a specific group of people or do you want to be seen by the whole Internet? Many social networking websites offer privacy options that can make your persona only visible on a “need to know” basis. If privacy is a concern, limiting your audience may help you sleep better at night.

3. Stick to your boundaries. What are you going to talk about with this persona? What are you going to talk about with that other persona? Are they going to overlap at all? (If so, make sure you don’t repeat any content word-for-word under both names.) What rules are you going to set for yourself to maintain your privacy? It’s important to honor the commitments you make to yourself, and to think long and hard about it before you change your own rules.

4. Watch yourself. The key to consistency is knowing what your web presence looks like at all times. Subscribe to Google Alerts and Technorati search feeds for all of your names and blog titles to see where they show up on the web. If someone should write about you in a way that violates your privacy, you need to be able to respond right away.

5. Remember that humans make mistakes. Even the most fastidious security geek can relax for a moment and miss a tiny detail that will topple a house of cards. And the possibility of mistakes increase exponentially when you start to tell friends what you’re doing. Before you write a word on the internet, stop and think about the possibility that your real world identity may someday be connected to it. It’s uncomfortable, it’s terrifying, and you can work like crazy to make sure it doesn’t happen… but just think about that worst case scenario for a moment. Could you survive? Is the risk worth it? Probably? Okay, then get your voice out there!

(special thanks to Kaliya for prodding me to tell this story.)

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