Opinion / Berlin Fang

Virtual persona should be you in reality

By Berlin Fang (China Daily) Updated: 2013-03-11 07:59

Virtual persona should be you in realityChina is the world's most populous country, but I am still amazed that some micro-bloggers have millions of followers - that is a lot of clout.

But some people deliberately manipulate their image online for personal gain. Yet if they try and maintain a false online persona too long, pieces of the puzzle come together to tell people who they really are. When this happens, the public does not treat the perpetrator kindly.

Virtual life is no longer a frivolous addition to our real lives. Online personae have the potential to bring us greater recognition than our real selves, making it finally possible to lead double lives without being secret agents. I live in Oklahoma, but I write mainly in Chinese for a Chinese audience. I have been able to achieve some recognition on the Web while maintaining a very private, undisturbed life.

Our virtual image is not always, if ever, a mirror image of who we actually are offline. Most of us now have a "split personality" problem between our virtual selves and our real selves. But such a differentiation existed even before the Internet. Many forces, such as selective amnesia, our imaginations, vanity or humility, are at work when we try to present ourselves in any media. Author Joyce Maynard once exchanged letters with a prison inmate called "Grizzly" whose writing was filled with tender feelings. The man turned out to be a murderer who had killed both his parents.

Each day we see such stories of inconsistency unfold, although usually in a much less dramatic fashion. However, not all inconsistencies are dishonest. As an introvert, I am reticent in person, but I am expressive in my writing. I am at peace with myself knowing this difference. I dated my wife face-to-face first so that she would not fault me with manipulation. It is hard enough as it is to reconcile impressions of the other person before and after marriage.

However, we should be concerned about habitual hypocrisy or people intentionally trying to be misleading, especially for the sake of children who cannot tell the difference between online and offline realities. I have known people who, when online, impress readers as beacons of morality but who are obnoxious, shady or downright evil characters in real life. The reverse, of course, can also be true, people who are nice in their offline reality turn nasty online.

In certain instances, inconsistencies come from a person's wish to conform to a perceived social norm. If the perceived norm has a way of educating the public what behavior is desirable and what is not, so be it. This would be the kind of positive dynamic that society should cherish and cultivate. We can even tolerate some accidental hypocrisy if the "perpetrator" has simply set a goal too high to be attainable, not realizing his limits - an honest failure.

And the least we can do is to be truthful when we discover our own inconsistencies. Nobel Laureate V.S. Naipaul is one of the finest English writers alive. However, he is also a deeply flawed man, but he authorized his biographer to write about him exactly as he is. I find such authenticity respectable, probably redeeming for him as well. The world is as it is, online and offline.

If our online persona is better than who we really are, we should try to live up to the image we are presenting. We should ask our online selves to hold our offline selves accountable for our actions. Such a Web persona is a promise of who we can be, and we should live a life that tries to deliver on that promise. Similarly, if we present a better self offline, we should improve our online persona, for our online presence is part of our realities.

The author is a US-based instructional designer, literary translator and columnist writing on cross-cultural issues.

(China Daily 03/11/2013 page9)

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