The personal, the political, and the public persona: My journey towards transparency and authenticity in the digital age

Sure the personal is political, but is the personal professional?

As a person who has been writing and networking on the internet since she was 14 — before anyone had any idea of what one should or shouldn’t say on the internet — my web footprint is broad and messy. Now that I am an online communications/social media professional (a “specialist” according to my job title), I need to have a public, professional online persona. But how do I create an authentic, professional public identity without hiding or erasing my not-so-professional internet history?

I started using Facebook as a college sophomore in 2004. At the time, Facebook was limited to college students and because the network felt so insular and protected, I wantonly posted photos from events like “The Less You Wear, the Less You Pay Dance” and steamy photos of my summer abroad, which I spent clubbing in Sevilla with hot Spanish boys.  I wrote highly inappropriate status updates with plenty of profanity. Because, why not? It’s not like parents, professors, or employers would ever be on Facebook, right? (D’oh!)

Today I use Twitter for professional networking, but my Facebook profile is another story. With photos and details of all my lurid undergraduate exploits, is not the most work-friendly. Two years ago I created a second “dummy” Facebook profile partly to use for professional networking and partly as a way to hide my real one. It’s a crappy solution; I hate maintaining two profiles, so I rarely check the dummy one. I do this even though I’m fully aware that it doesn’t make sense to be on Facebook for professional reasons if you never update your account. Not to mention the fact that it looks really bad when a so-called social media professional doesn’t appear to actually use Facebook.

I also feel guilty because my second Facebook profile feels like a betrayal of trust. Over the past two years I have accepted friend requests from people expecting to get something out of it. Implicit in the action of becoming “Facebook friends” is the mutual granting of access to our lives, our “real selves.” I have betrayed this trust; while I am privileged to the details of their lives, they get nothing from me besides a few outdated photos and a status update every few months.

I’ve thought about cleaning up my real Facebook profile and deleting and untagging everything that’s professionally “iffy.” But I can’t do it. I don’t want to delete photo albums from the Rocky Horror Picture Show or memorable college parties. I don’t want to stop posting inappropriate or silly things on my wall.  That stuff is an important part of my identity and my personal history, and I would feel like I had lost something without it.

There’s also the issue of my feminist writing and link-sharing, which happens daily on my “real” Facebook page. Talkin’ Reckless is a progressive, feminist, sex-positive, and argumentative blog — and  for that reason linking to it could be professionally problematic. These days I work at a progressive women’s organization, but in the next few years I’ll be switching careers and job hunting and potentially working for organizations or companies that may be uncomfortable hiring a *public* feminist, or an activist of any kind.

I have known for some time that I would eventually merge my two Facebook profiles and let colleagues and everyone else see the “real” me. But I have hesitated, because this is terrifying. The real me still gets drunk at parties where people drink beer out of red solo cups. The real me still attends fabulous/scandalous events in various states of undress. The real me uses the f-word. The real me has multiple identities that don’t always co-exist comfortably: feminist activist; aspiring writer; social media professional; grad student; blog editor; health communication professional; improv comedian; teacher. The real me is also an atheist Jew who’s highly ambivalent about being involved in the organized Jewish community. And sometimes, the real me makes mistakes.

But the real me is also just a person, with a family, friends, and hobbies who takes pleasure in cat videos and silly Tumblr memes just like everybody else. And I know that sharing those “humanizing” aspects of my real self are a critical part of making connections, networking, and building relationships online.

A part of me would love to just put it all out there — to create a professional homepage of sorts, maybe a public Google profile, where I could direct people to my Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Youtube, Vimeo, Facebook, Picassa, Flickr, (dear god – are there more?) and various blogs. The idea appeals to my sense of organization and my ego. I like the idea of marketing myself. But if all of my web usage became part of a grand self-marketing scheme, would my online life still be authentic or would it turn into a performance?  I’m also not sure I want to be that findable. After all, how much information do I want the random Googler to know about me? Good social media networking requires an online presence, but I’m struggling to figure out how wide and how deep it should go.

I’m not going so far as to promote and advertise my entire web CV, but I’m making a big change today. I’m deleting my second Facebook profile (soon) and inviting you to come find me at my real Facebook page. From now on, I’m going to practice what I preach.  I’ll still use the “limited profile” and other privacy restrictions when appropriate; they are valid and useful tools. I also wont usually accept friend requests from people I don’t actually know, but I invite those folks to follow me on Twitter where they can reach out to me and start a conversation. You can also add me to your circles on Google+.

Today, I’m taking that giant leap towards transparency and authenticity. I’m also taking a leap of faith that society — and all of my future employers — will adjust and embrace this brave new world of public identity that is simultaneously personal, political, and professional.

Well intentioned Facebook meme misses the point

A ‎15 year old girl holds hands with her 1 year old son. People call her a slut. No-one knows she was raped at 13. People call a girl fat. No-one knows she has a serious disease which causes her to be over weight. People call an old man ugly. No-one knows he had a serious injury to his face while fighting for our country in the war. Re post this if you are against bullying and stereotyping. 95% of you won’t

I keep seeing this Facebook status meme pop up from time to time, and every time, it makes me angry. Sure, I’m against bullying and stereotyping (is anyone really pro bullying and stereotyping?) but I don’t at all agree with the message here.

Sure, it’s important not to assume that all teen mothers became mothers by choice. It’s important not to assume that every teen mother became pregnant through consensual sex or irresponsible behavior. Yes, it’s important to understand and recognize that some pregnancies are the result of rapes, and that some young women are forced to carry their babies to term because of shitty barriers to contraception, Plan B, and abortion access. Maybe she was forced to carry the baby to term because of parental notification laws, or the crowds of anti-Choice protesters outside her local Planned Parenthood, or even simply because abortion is too stigmatizing or incompatible with her family’s beliefs or culture to consider.

But even if a teenage girl did become pregnant through consensual sex – even if she was irresponsible – even if she had consensual, unprotected sex with multiple partners – she still doesn’t deserve to be called a slut. Nobody deserves to be called a slut, ever, for any reason. Because there’s nothing wrong with having sex. Even when you’re young. Even when you’re not married. Even if it’s with multiple partners.

Sure, it’s important to realize that there are a myriad of different reasons why a person might become overweight. It could be the result of an illness, or a medication, or a genetic condition and no fault of her own. But it could also be a result of an eating disorder, or stress eating, or poverty, or a lack of education about nutrition. It could be because she’s too busy working 14 hours a day to shop at a grocery store and prepare healthy meals. It could also be because she loves food and doesn’t really care if she conforms to the unrealistic American beauty ideal of the size 2 supermodel. She might be happy with her body exactly how it is.

But no one deserves to be discriminated against or bullied for being fat, ever, for any reason. Even if their weight appears unhealthy, even if they just fucking love to eat hamburgers. Because fat people deserve respect, even if they’re fat because they’re lazy, even if they’re unhealthy. Because people come in all different shapes and sizes, for all sorts of reasons. Because there’s no wrong way to have a body. And because someone else’s weight is really none of your business.

Yes, it’s important to realize that sometimes people look different and sometimes they were injured while serving our country. But sometimes people look different because they were injured for some other reason. Maybe it was a car accident. Maybe it was a drunken hang-gliding accident. Maybe there was an accident at work because of lax safety standards. Maybe it wasn’t an injury, but an illness, or a condition that developed over time, or maybe they were just born that way. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with a person’s face other than the fact that it doesn’t look like the faces we see in magazines. Maybe it’s not a person’s face, but their body. Maybe they use a wheelchair or a cane. Maybe they sound different when they speak. Maybe they cannot speak, or cannot hear, or cannot see. No one deserves to be called ugly, no matter what they look like or sound like or how they came to be that way.

Though I can recognize that the meme is well-intentioned, it suggests that while some people don’t deserve to be bullied or stereotyped, other people do. Because they “brought it on themselves” by acting irresponsibly or just because they don’t have a “good excuse” for being the way they are. But nobody deserves to be stereotyped or bullied, for any reason.

When someone falls outside the norm, they become a target for bullying and stereotyping just because they’re different. And everyone is different at least some of the time. There’s no point to trying to determine who “deserves it” and who doesn’t. Because bullying and stereotyping is cruelty, and no one ever deserves that.

So if 95% of people aren’t reposting this status meme, let’s hope it’s because they agree that EVERY 15 year old mother, EVERY overweight person, and EVERY person who’s body is in some way “different,” deserves our respect and compassion.

Smile for Me

Yesterday I saw a tongue and cheek “handy questionnaire for street harassers” on Feministing (via The Riot) and posted it to Facebook. A conversation about the so-called ambiguity of cat-calling (or street harassment) ensued. While I generally don’t see the ambiguity about it being right or wrong (it’s wrong), I do recognize that there are different types of cat-calls.  Some are blatant disrespect and assertions of power (Hey baby, gimme summa that, etc.).  Others could actually be misapplied expressions of kindness or inappropriate attempts to give a compliment – but that still doesn’t make them okay.

Compliments can be tricky because there should, ideally, be a way to pay a stranger a compliment without it being harassment.  It’s tricky because it all depends on context and no matter how carefully you craft your compliment, you cannot predict how it will be interpreted. In the discussion happening on Facebook, someone suggested that it was up to the “complimentee” to discern how the compliment was intended, and that it’s not the complimenter’s fault if they misunderstand. I disagree. When you initiate an interaction with a stranger, you are responsible for making sure your intentions are as clear as possible. It’s not the stranger’s fault for misinterpreting a signal – after all, they were minding their own business until you bothered them.

Once I was riding the T in the evening. The car was mostly empty except for me, a man sitting across from me, and maybe one or two other people further away. I was fixing my hair using my reflection in the opposite car window, and the man across from me said, “Don’t worry, you look great.” I was caught off guard and my instinctual reaction was to give the man a dirty, “don’t come near me” look. Afterwards, I wondered if I had overreacted. Maybe he had just been trying to pay me a compliment and I felt guilty.  But then I thought some more and realized that I was trapped in an almost-empty train car with this man and I did not really feel safe. So was I wrong?

I still don’t know what the man’s intentions really were, or if my reaction was entirely necessary, but when I think about it now – months later – I just get frustrated. Why should I be agonizing over this interaction? I never asked for it to happen. It’s not my fault that I was caught off guard and reacted instinctively. I didn’t – and still don’t – owe that man anything. It’s too bad we live in a world where compliments sometimes come with ulterior motives, but we do, and it’s never your fault for taking measures to feel safe.

The other classic example of an extremely misconstrued act of kindness is when a cat-caller/street harasser says “smile for me.” I really hate this one, in part because my own reactions to it confuse me.

“Smile for me” is a actually a terrible thing to say to someone when you think about it. Imagine that a woman is walking down the street. For whatever reason, she doesn’t look happy. Maybe she’s anxious about something, or upset, or just tired.  A man on the street smiles at her and says, “Hey give me a smile.”  What is implicit in that statement is the idea that women are objects meant to look pretty and happy for men.  “Smile for me.” What he might be trying to say is “cheer up,” but the words he’s using actually mean, “You should look a certain way to please me,” or “The idea of an unhappy woman displeases me. Please correct this imbalance in my world perception.”  Also implicit in the command (it is a command) is the idea that that men have authority over women’s bodies, and also that women have no legitimate reason to ever stop smiling, maybe because they are meant to be purely ornamental in a man’s world, or better yet, emotionless automatons.

After all, forcing a smile when you’re not in the mood doesn’t actually make anything better for you. It just makes you look better for them. It reminds me of an adorable scene in Six Feet Under where 3 year-old Maya is dancing in her parents’ bedroom. Her father asks, “Are you dancing for me?” and she replies, “NO! I’m dancing for ME!”

You don’t smile for someone else. You smile for you.

How does it feel to be on the receiving end of “smile for me?” Complicated.  Most of the time, it makes me angry.

Smile for you? Fuck you. You have no idea why I’m upset right now. My situation is absolutely none of your business. Also, why the fuck should I be smiling? Things are SHIT right now, thank you very much. I don’t owe you a fucking smile.  Aren’t I allowed to be pissed off?  Aren’t I allowed to feel what I’m feeling? I’m sorry, did I give you permission to even speak to me in the first place?

(Guy from the gym, I’m talking to you.)

But I don’t always react this way.

In the Facebook thread someone joked that a cat-call is only harassment if the person giving it is unattractive. If they’re hot, it’s a compliment. Unfortunately, there is a teensy element of truth to this. If someone I find attractive says, “smile for me,” I probably would smile. I would feel as though I had received a compliment, or a kindness. But it’s not just about attraction. It’s also about whether or not the person or the situation (physical environment, etc) feels threatening. When all the other elements feel safe and I am predisposed to like this person because I find them attractive, it can be easy to take “smile for me” as a compliment.  But deep down, I know I shouldn’t encourage or support that behavior.  Just because I feel safe and desirable when this person said “smile for me” doesn’t mean that the next woman will, and this person needs to learn that it’s really not okay to say it to anyone.

The reality is that the majority of street harassment cases are not ambiguous like the ones I discussed here. Most of them are vulgar, horrible, and threatening. They are about asserting power over someone else’s body, usually a woman, or woman of color.  They do not usually come from a place of kindness.  When we talk about street harassment, it’s important to remember that the majority of street harassment is like this. While “smile for me” and other types of so-called compliments may feel a little bit ambiguous, those cases should not be used to try to confuse or challenge the validity of the majority of street harassment cases, which are, unambiguously, harassment.

This means that when someone brings up street harassment, don’t bring up the two examples where it might be okay. You’re missing the point, and in doing so, you’re actually making it harder for women to fight against real, glaring, no-bones-about-it, street harassment. And that is nothing to smile about.

A Society of Guilty Bystanders

We are familiar with the concept of “innocent bystanders”; these are the people who accidentally get injured in cross-fires or explosions. And we are familiar with those who “stand idly by”; they are the people who turn away and knowingly allow atrocities to happen. It’s considered a tragedy when innocent bystanders get hurt and it is repugnant when bystanders stand idly by. But these days, we have a different breed of bystander: the guilty bystander, the absolute worst of them all.

The guilty bystander is worse than the idle bystander because the guilty bystander does not turn their head and ignore atrocity; the guilty bystander watches it happen, records it on his/her phone, and uploads it to Youtube. For example, take a recent story from Vancouver in which a 16 year-old girl was drugged and gang raped at a rave, while onlookers took photos that they then posted to Facebook.  (Some of them are even refusing to take the photos down, despite threats of being charged with disseminating child pornography from the police.) Last year 15 year-old high school girl was gang-raped in the parking lot of her school during a homecoming dance, while a crowd watched, laughed, and took pictures. I do not know exactly how often this is happening, but it’s at least two times too many.

The idea of the watching, laughing, jeering bystander is nothing new; it’s an unfortunate, cowardly, human response. The 21st century addition to this offense, however – which pushes into a whole new category of evil – is that these guilty bystanders are actively participating by recording the rape, and disseminating it to the internet for others to enjoy. By adding those photos to Facebook, the guilty bystanders invited their friends to view them and add comments, all of which were of the slut-shaming variety (e.g. “Straight up WHORE,” a “complete slut”). Discussing why people would look at a photo of a gang-rape and direct their disgust at the victim is a whole other story. Now these photos have been unleashed into cyberspace and there is no way to destroy or delete them all, meaning that the victim will be forced to relive the event, and the subsequent bullying, over and over again each time a photo resurfaces.

So why the hell are people committing such disgusting acts? Why don’t people interfere and stop the rape? Why has the default response changed from “standing idly by” to recording the event with voyeuristic excitement? I really don’t know, but I do have one idea: reality tv.

We are a nation of voyeurs. We are now accustomed to viewing the misfortune of others as entertainment. We also know the rules of reality tv production – the film crew must not interfere, not even when a child (like we have seen on Jon & Kate Plus Eight or Teen Mom) is about to get injured. It’s supposed to preserve the “reality” of the show, but what this expectation has done, in fact, is create a new “reality” in which one does not interfere, not even when someone is getting hurt.

There is no hard data or scientific evidence that media messages categorically change and/or influence behavior; there’s only common sense. And perhaps it’s only common sense that a generation of young people raised on reality tv have gotten some very backwards messages about what is entertainment and what is reality. No wonder they can’t tell the difference between when you are supposed to watch and when you are supposed to intervene.

There was recently a story about a flight attendent who removed a baby from its parent’s custody on a flight because the parents were slapping it. I think the story confused most of us – we weren’t sure if the flight attendant was supposed to be a hero, or if she overstepped her bounds. We are a society that doesn’t have a clear idea of what is abuse and what isn’t, what is violence and what isn’t. (The infamous “Snookie punch” vs. when Amber hit Gary on Teen Mom?) And reality tv, unfortunately, is a part of that.

Now, I obviously have no data or “proof” that reality tv is the cause of disgusting displays like this. I am not trying to claim that I do, or that the issue is simple enough to be boiled down to just one cause. Still, as I sit here fuming with anger and disgust for my fellow members of the human race, it’s the best explanation I can come up with.

We may never be able to eradicate rape from society or cure the impulse to rape in rapists. But it is not a mental illness that causes bystanders to assume that an obviously intoxicated 15 year-old wants to be raped by multiple people in public; it’s a social illness. We CAN teach people to intervene in situations of public gang-rape or other types of violence and/or abuse. We can, at the very least, teach people to recognize public gang-rape ofor what it isn’t: guilty pleasure entertainment.