Why It’s Okay If Your Public Persona is Half-baked
As of this writing, Lincoln in the Bardo has been on the New York Times best-seller list for almost two months. Reading the book, I was captivated by George Saunders’s quirky brilliance. He offers an immersive, supernatural reimagining of a series of visits Abraham Lincoln paid to his son Willie’s grave.
Even though it’s about a little known episode from Lincoln’s presidency, it’s easy for any reader to picture the scene depicted in the book: a bearded Lincoln in a dark suit, clutching his top hat and standing alone in a cemetery. Since his election, nearly every living American has been able to conjure up a clear visual image of our 16th president. Why?
Because by the time of his assassination, Lincoln’s already memorable public persona was readymade for historical immortality.
He had already spent a long time crafting it.
Take the iconic beard: Lincoln grew it just a few months before his election, and then only because his advisors (and one now-famous 11-year old girl) told him it would make him look more authoritative. For most of his life, then, Lincoln’s face wasn’t the one we all picture when we hear his name. His public image was always elastic (a great notion I picked up from researcher Tricia Wang). It only became fixed after he died.
The same goes for anybody’s persona today.
As long as we’re alive, our persona will feel incomplete and half-formed, because we are by nature incomplete. We live in a constant state of becomingness.
Mark Twain, another American icon, is a great example of this. His fans loved him during his lifetime because he shared his constant imperfection and evolution, along with his changeless trademark wit. The comfortable, frizzy-haired, cigar-toting wisecracker in a white suit dates only from the very end of his life. The white suits in particular became a habit just four years before his death.
So it wasn’t our posthumous, perfectly put-together image that Twain’s fans loved. It was a restless striver who was eloquent and honest about his responses to life.
In Twain and Lincoln’s day, it was admittedly easier to craft a coherent persona. Newsprint and still photography travelled much slower than TV and social media. There was more time to anticipate and plan a consistent response to events.
But if they were alive today, I suspect both Twain and Lincoln would love social media. Twitter would be the perfect vehicle for Twain’s famous one-liners (“Never put off until tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow”), or Lincoln’s crisp commentary on current events (“A house divided against itself cannot stand”).
Neither of them would’ve shied away from tweeting a carefully constructed, but still authentic picture of who they were.
I’ve come to believe that growth and change are at the center of any persona, just as they are at the center of any person’s development. Wherever we share of ourselves, it’s essential to share some aspect of our aspirations and transformations, if we want to be authentic.
My experiments with social media have borne this out — so well, in fact that social has become one of my essential feedback loops. At its best, I believe social media can be a transformational medium.
I used to think social was the place you went once you had it all figured out. But now I’ve realized that social media can actually be a good place to figure it all out, as long as you set boundaries about how much importance to give the feedback. Positive feedback feels great, but, trolls aside, negative feedback can be important, too, because it raises questions we may not consider otherwise. Not every bit of negative feedback you get comes from trolls, so it’s worth it to wade through challenging comments to find what’s well intentioned and useful.
In that way, our online lives can be a laboratory for the other parts of our lives. If we wait for a fully constructed “self” to emerge before putting ourselves out there, then we’re bound to be waiting around forever.
And it’s the process of putting ourselves out there that helps us develop into who we are.
Sharing yourself, whether online or in person, means being honest about that fact that we’re all works in progress. We’re all in a perpetual state of becomingness. And that’s at least half the fun of it: Ask yourself, what will I become next? Even if just for a day, an hour, a tweet?
As always, I am looking forward to your feedback in the comments! Which online personas do a great job of changing and incorporating feedback? How have they changed over time?