My son Ben, who recently turned 11, just posted his first online profile picture for Google. He’s not grinning widely, boyishly, the exuberant Norman-Rockwell human I know him to be. Instead, he’s smirking, cocksure, a CEO in a corner office with his hands locked at his neck to support his mighty head with his mighty palms.
“Why—?” I started to ask, noting that he had chosen the image from 200 or so cuter-looking selfies.
“Doesn’t it look… powerful?” Ben replied. It did.
I created my first online avatar in 1979 when I was nine. It was a pagan, text-only version of Ben’s: Athena. She hung out with people whose screen names were Apollo and Zeus in a networked chat room of the 1980s, and she was my first stab at creating my own brand. I like to think that the wise warrior’s name was an overtly silly cover for my lumpish, preadolescent self—that Athena, an actual goddess, might have widened the gap between my online and offline self. (Something more modestly aspirational like “coolkid81” would not have had the same effect.) But at that age I probably had only one goal: to be armored against criticism within an inch of my life.
It seems cringey to talk about online personas, unless we’re carping about someone else’s. As a rule, it’s hard to talk about the strategies and desires that inform our digital posturing, because it means copping to posturing in the first place. But the creation and maintenance of digital avatars consumes a serious section of our online lives. People are expected to register for even non-social services like Netflix with a photo and handle, and at more creative joints like Instagram and Pinterest, you go on to create a cloak of intellectual property around your projected persona; photographs sweetened in postproduction, witty or sentimental captions, a little bio that’s generally more lyrical than factual.
These are explicit moments of avatar creation—but maybe that’s what we’re doing all the time on this massive multiplayer role-playing game we call the internet. When we choose to use our married name on Facebook, opt for a judiciously cropped profile photo, or post links to crowdfunding sites for Syrian refugees, these add to the avatar we’re designing as much as our 140 character bios. They’re our brand—or maybe just a personality. But once we’ve acknowledged the intentionality behind all online avatars, how should go about designing them?
It’s been two eventful decades since Tom Peters published A Brand Called You, the inspirational injunction that encouraged mawkish workers everywhere to become the “CEO of Me, Inc.” And it’s been eight decades since Dale Carnegie published How to Win Friends and Influence People, that ingenious little midcentury guide to bowing and scraping for the approval of others.
What Peters called a “brand” in 1997 was to be realized with website design and a compelling email style; for Carnegie in 1936, it was called “personality,” and it was realized with firm handshakes and good eye contact. But while Peters is dead serious when he encourages readers to become one-woman Nikes with their own douchey logos, Carnegie is more playful in his advocacy for personality creation—and more principled. Even though Peters’ book is more contemporary, we should turn to Carnegie’s when it comes to creating our avatars.
In 1936, the year the Federal Reserve was founded to regulate the freefalling dollar, Carnegie was drawing crowds for lectures he gave at the YMCA. His followers coveted a stable currency—ideally one that could be conjured by mere willpower. That’s when Carnegie brilliantly minted the notion of popularity as prosperity. Friends were the coin of the Carnegie realm well before Facebook. Before Carnegie, it was mostly debutantes and movie stars who measured their worth in numbers of admirers—but then he began preaching that this robust popularity could someday be converted into “influence.” Sales. Real money.
How to Win Friends and Influence People went on to sell 30 million copies, and in 2011 it was named (naturally) one of TIME Magazine’s most “influential” books of all time. The book contained all kinds of tips and tricks to win people over—using the heck out of another person’s name in conversation is a classic—and damned if they don’t engender some sort of motivation to raise your social game. At the same time, there’s a nice secular ethics to Carnegie’s recommendations. Readers are instructed to listen closely and “become genuinely interested in other people”—practices as good for Self-Centered Sally as for the vacuum-cleaner salesman. (Peters’ The Brand Called You dispensed with all that—Brands Called Me evidently don’t listen.)
But Carnegie’s fairly innocent recommendations raise the specter of manipulation and duplicity—a specter that haunts the internet. One of the earliest anxieties about networked computing is still among the most virulent: that it’s a masquerade. That no one can tell if you’re a dog (or a hacker, or troll, or catfish, or predator). This anxiety generally limits the freedom that brought so many of us to the internet in the first place.
And that’s a shame. When role-play is seen as immoral, people tend to create online avatars far too nervously, defensively—and pompously. People far too old to be playing Athena strike exaggerated poses with flawless retouched profile pictures, groupthink clichés, and self-aggrandizing posts. The fear of criticism eclipses the possibilities of fiction and play. And then there’s a rubber-band effect: When the heroic posing gets too hard, we wonder why we even have to do this. Why we can’t just Be Ourselves?
We can’t wish away the imperative to create and maintain digital avatars. And yet, when it comes to kids—including my own—adults frequently just want to keep them away from all digital social life; to strip my son of his “powerful” avatar and teach him to act his age and stay off Google Hangouts. But this is like telling kids in Carnegie’s day to stop cultivating a social self—to stop going to dances, bonfires, pep rallies, or baseball games.
Kids need room to experiment with the creation of their online personas. They need room to play multiple and protean roles, some of which—most of which—may strike their parents as unsavory, or just silly. Whenever Ben’s face pops up with his corner-office look, I worry he’s going to try on this hedge-fund thing for size forever. But then I remember that, at some point, I did put down my sword and shield and moved on to a post-Athena avatar.
Because they’re less terrified—of trolls, bullying, criticism—my recent avatars can be more expansive. They’re not quite so worried about typos, banal Instagram photos, or eccentric tweets—being human online, in short. They can make better digital eye contact. They can ask other avatars about themselves. And, following Carnegie, my adult avatars can sometimes even listen.