The 80/20 Rule

When you put your life online, people think they know 80% of who you are. But internet personas are really only 20% true.

Illustration by Ji Lee.

A few years ago, when I was single and desperate to find a boyfriend, I asked my friend Amy if she thought my blog made me undatable. She didn’t have an answer, but she did share an anecdote. After Amy and her friend Max met me at a book party in SoHo, she received an email from a friend expressing his surprise that we had become friends. “You and Max are like Statler and Waldorf, heckling from the audience,” Amy’s friend wrote to her. “Tyler Coates is like Miss Piggy, preening on the stage.”

It was not the first time I had been accused of oversharing. I have been writing about myself online in some form since graduating from high school in 2001. My first attempts at blogging were on and, two sites that focused more on journaling than writing for an audience, although there were clear social aspects to both. Then there was LiveJournal in college (my friends were the only people who read that one) and, post-graduation, Blogger. After joining Tumblr at the beginning of 2008, I used it as more of a scrapbook, casually posting and reblogging pictures and songs. But a year in, I changed my pseudonymous username to my own. Suddenly, because I was writing under my own name — my first byline, really — the criticisms changed. Even though I was hardly anonymous on my earlier blogs, my Tumblr had some deliberate accountability because my name was attached.

Mixed in with the Liz Phair MP3s and pre-selfie-era selfies were brief posts about my feelings and emotions — two things that are never supposed to be put on the internet, I learned. I wrote about a lot of things in those early days on Tumblr: My dad had died of cancer, I was working in a miserable temp job that I hated, and I had been dumped just before Christmas. The communal nature of Tumblr offered some solace and support. I made a lot of friends based on the mutual pop-culture interests we were writing about, and a lot of those people crossed the email boundary and offered me emotional support.

At the first Tumblr meetup I had ever attended, in Chicago in 2009, organized by a group of users who barely new each other offline, strangers told me how they found it inspiring that I would write about things they would never share on the internet. Oversharing never felt like the appropriate word for what I did—it really is such an overused and misunderstood phrase. To overshare means simply to share anything the reader might not share him or herself. Our personal boundaries are subjective, so the term serves to attack a writer for doing what the accuser wouldn’t: revealing something personal, something that makes the reader vulnerable. It carries with it the resentment that the person doing the revealing isn’t embarrassed, even though the reader thinks the writer should be.

Somehow we don’t feel the same way about someone on stage: Performers are usually rewarded for their bravery, applauded for making themselves vulnerable. Bloggers, on the other hand, are seemingly hobbyists and amateurs, even if they’re getting paid for their work. They are attention seekers trolling for personal kicks and pleasure. There’s a fine line for any performer: Who they are on the stage and who they are in the wings. That invisible barrier between the footlights and the front row of the audience is nonexistent for people who perform on the internet. But I felt like I’ve been playing a character all this time — or at least a heightened version of myself.

I have what I call my 80/20 Rule, a theory based entirely on presumption and not at all mathematical. (If I were good at math, I’d be in a different business.) The premise is essentially this: Everything you know about someone based on what they put on the internet represents about 20 percent of who he or she really is, while the other 80 percent is not actually present in that online persona. On the other hand, the 20 percent you put out there can be perceived as 80 percent of your inner life, maybe even more.

Years ago, my boyfriend bemoaned the bravado I used on the internet. He still points it out sometimes, suggesting that the person I am on the internet is not always the person I am in my relationship with him. When I recently asked what bothered him about it, he replied, “It seemed like you were using personal experiences to gain approval from ‘the internet’ — this wider audience — and I wondered why the approval of your friends and family wasn’t enough. It felt like a distorted version of you.”

When I co-starred in a web series called Disappointing Gay Best Friend with Mikala Bierma, we unintentionally played on this very notion. Mikala was the moronic girl who wanted a gay of her own. I was the boring, dull gay guy who didn’t want to go clubbing with her. Most of the mean comments were directed Mikala’s way, but a few described me as “straight-acting” and “self-loathing.” My IRL friends know that I won’t shut up about musical theater, so to call me straight-acting is absurd. But I realized that we don’t always get to pick the identities others prescribe us. We do, however, have to find comfort in understanding that how we see ourselves is not how we present to other people.

About two years ago, after a big, bad breakup, I deleted my Tumblr account for good. An online platform to express my roller coaster of emotions only opened me up to criticism from the same people who enjoyed taking advantage of my pain. Instead of using the internet as my therapist, I went to a real one. Instead of letting anonymous commenters tell me what I should do with myself, I listened to one professional with whom I was able to share all sides of the situation — not just the parts I wanted her to hear. As I learned to manage my emotions simply through the fundamental process of understanding them, I cared less and less about documenting the process on the internet. I don’t need to write to know what I’m feeling anymore, which has given me something I didn’t have on Tumblr: a vantage point that offered more of a complete perspective.

I can find old blog posts today and barely recognize the 20-something who wrote them. Maybe in a few years I’ll feel the same way about this essay. The 80/20 Rule can be applied to ourselves, too, and maybe that’s the most important part: To benefit from self-reflection, we also need to see ourselves as others do.