Chris Friend is a Trustees Doctoral Fellow at the University of Central Florida. As part of the Texts and Technology program, his dissertation will focus on how composition courses are adapted for online study. In this piece, Chris invites us to consider online personae — those we construct, and those we read.
When Writing Digitally, Nobody Knows You’re a Duck
As the Internet’s popularity and population exploded, issues of personal identity/ies gained traction in the minds of scholars and analysts. With the computer screen and virtual environment as a mediator, users can portray themselves however they wish. For people with social or physical disabilities, this masquerade allows an extra degree of equality. When real-time communication uses text instead of visual signals, physical differences become invisible (Stone/Turkle). The disconnect between the identity of the avatar/screenname and the identity of the user lead to Peter Steiner’s oft-repeated adage: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” Anyone online can pretend to be anyone (or anything) else.
Skip ahead a few years, and we now find ourselves writing like mad as part of a digital exploration ostensibly led by a duck. And nobody questions it. By the time you read this post, the secret identity behind the little quack may or may not have been revealed. But regardless of whether you know who tweets on behalf of @digiwrimo, the duck’s persona has a life of its own. (Can I get a “Yip” from the congregation?) That’s the beauty of online writing: We can use created identities to say things the way we want, from a specific or even fictitious perspective. These created/creative identities allow real-time responses to events and ideas in new and engaging ways. Research projects in space have a rubber-chicken mascot, emotive exploration vehicles, and humble assistive humanoid robots that tweet live and participate in Q&A sessions with young audiences. Fictional, digital-only characters permit widespread distribution of social commentary, as well: the rubber chicken has a bitter nemesis, the Mars rover had an evil alter-ego, and presidential debates spawn accounts on behalf of inarticulate moderators and laid-off childhood mascots.
The ability to create personae such as these lets digital writers powerfully leverage a intentional sense of perspective and allow audience members to interact with a presence that seems more real on account of its being completely fake. I confess: I’ve cherished conversations with both the rubber chicken and the robot, I’ve been yipped at by our duck friend, and I’ve been petted by the duck’s monstrous sibling. The immediacy, flexibility, and obscurity inherent in digital writing can facilitate imaginative and distinctly personal connections between author and audience because digital writing allows authors to connect to—and interact with—that audience using whatever persona they desire. Those created and performative personae, whether “real” or fictional, give authors an opportunity (or a challenge) to construct their ethos very directly and literally.
On the other hand, connections formed from manufactured personae, while they offer creative and engaging interactions with readers, also establish the vexing separation inherent in digital writing. Because digital text necessarily must be both transformed and executed, the distance between author and audience can seem greater than ever. An author creates writing that is recorded, encoded, transmitted, decoded, and displayed, often with various duplicate or residual copies being created in the process. We can easily conclude that writers lose control of their digital creations. Once a digital work has been published (whatever that means, given the context), the text can seem completely out of the author’s hands.
What may seem a lamentable loss of control can actually serve as another means of connection. Digital writing allows both writers and readers to connect with technology in very personal ways. Once a digital text is distributed to the end user, it can be presented to each reader in the most appropriate format for that reader. For instance, the same digital writing that appears to you in the default font of your favorite web browser could appear as braille to another user, with no changes or involvement from the author or publisher. Or consider eBooks, which allow the reader to change color and typeface of a book on the fly. To be sure, those are superficial adjustments, but those adjustments allow each reader to connect with the text the way they want to. The intermediary functions of technology being applied to digital writing allow writers and readers to connect across otherwise formidable barriers.
As we write our ways toward the end of our journey together, I encourage you to revel in the vibrant flexibility and connectivity that digital writing provides:
Writing digitally allows us to create our content, target our audience, and even choose our delivery method. We can distribute our words through myriad channels, becoming our own publishers.
Writing digitally allows us to customize the creation and consumption of text using the technology of our choosing. Our writing and reading tools can adapt to our needs, or even our moods.
Writing digitally allows us to explicitly create our role, identity, and persona as a writer. That persona can be whatever best serves our writing exigence, and it can be as ordinary or extraordinary as we want. Because online, nobody knows you’re a duck.