Who We Are Online, Who We Are Offline, How They’re Different and How They’re the Same

Over on Facebook, a person who claims to have met and interacted with me (and he may have! I meet and interact with a lot of people) suggests that he wouldn’t want to associate with me because, among other things, there’s a difference between how I present myself online and how I present myself offline, which this fellow takes to mean that I say things here, that I wouldn’t say there. Which means, apparently, that I’m false/dissembling/a coward and so on.

This is interesting to me! I have thoughts on this! I am going to share them with you now!

One: Of course, and I think obviously, people who don’t want to associate with me should not associate with me. Whatever reason you have for not wanting to associate with me — including having no reason at all! — is perfectly acceptable. It’s your life, and life is too short to associate with people with whom you have no desire to spend time, even if that person is me. Maybe I’ll be sad about that, if you are someone I like or admire or thought I might one day like to get to know. But I’ll just have to be sad about that. If you don’t want to associate with me, I celebrate your choice. Go! Be associative with others who are not me.

Two: Also of course I am quite happy to say in the offline world the things that I say when I am online — in point of fact I do that all the time, because frequently, in both public and private conversation, people want to talk to me about things I’ve said online. Why? Well, for one thing, that’s how a lot of people know me, either through this blog or through my various social media presences. So naturally that’s going to be an entryway for actual conversation, or, when I’m doing a public event, a way for people to get me to further expound on a subject. I’m frequently saying offline what I’ve said online. It’s actually quite common.

Three: But what I suspect this fellow means is that I wouldn’t say negative things I might say about someone online to their face offline. For example, upon meeting, say, Ted Cruz, I wouldn’t, to his face, call him “a jowly gobbet of tubercular phlegm,” or “a necrotic self-regarding blight on the face of American politics,” which are things I’ve called him here. And here’s the truth of it: If, in fact, circumstances required that I had to meet Senator Cruz, and I couldn’t get out of it by saying “I’d prefer not to meet him” or alternately by faking a massive head injury, when the moment came that I was required to speak with him, I would say, “Hello, Senator,” and try to keep it to that. But if Cruz then said to me, “Hey, aren’t you the fellow who called me ‘an odious fistula that walks the earth in a human skin?’ I would say, ‘Why, yes, Senator Cruz. Indeed, I called you just that thing.'”

But I wouldn’t lead with it, because, you know. I’m not that kind of asshole. Unless I am specifically and affirmatively going to meet someone with the intent of telling them how much I dislike or oppose them — which is very rare, because there’s usually something better to do — I’m happy to be courteous and civil with the people that I disagree with or have arguments with, online or off. Why not? It’ll let everyone get through the day without being pissed off (more). And, here’s the thing — if someone I’ve had arguments with online shows civility and courtesy to me offline, in the world, good for them. Rather than chalk it up to cowardice or hypocrisy, I’m going to give them credit for understanding that context has a bearing on discourse. It doesn’t mean I forget the things they’ve said about me, or the things I might have said about them. It does mean we both understand that going after each other with hammers in one medium does not necessitate all hammers, all the time. You get credit in my book if you understand that.

(“But Scalzi,” you might say. “Aren’t you the one that says that the person who is an asshole online and polite offline is still an asshole?” Yes! Yes, I did. That goes for me as well — if your opinion of my online presentation is “what an asshole,” then no matter what you think of my offline public presentation, it’s perfectly valid for you to continue to have “asshole” as part of the foundation of your opinion of me. I’m okay with you thinking I’m an asshole. But in public, in the real world, I do try to be a decently socialized asshole.)

Be that as it may, if you’re determined to have me say to your face what I wrote about you online, then yes, in fact, I will absolutely say it to you, to your face. Why wouldn’t I? I wouldn’t have written it if I didn’t mean it — or at least, didn’t mean it at the time. It’s possible that over time I might have changed my opinion, and if that’s the case, I’d say that too. And if in time I decided that what I said was wrong, I would apologize, to you, to your face! (Yes, I’ve done that before.) But if I wrote something about you, and it still stood, and you asked me to repeat it to you, to your face, then, yup, that’ll happen.

Four: I should note that for my own self I don’t go out asking the people who say horrible things about me online to repeat them to my face. First, why would I willingly want to spend any time with people who say horrible things about me? I’m 47, man. More years behind than ahead. I endeavor to spend that time with people who actually like me. Second, in the cases where I am in the same space as they are for whatever reason, I generally try not to be the one determined to drop a turd in the punch bowl. Third, I don’t automatically assume that just because someone appears entirely jerky to me online, they will be the same way offline, because, again, most people understand context and are socialized, and who knows? Maybe we’ll get along otherwise. It’s happened before! Fourth, running around being an exposed nerve all the time is tiring. And fifth, generally speaking, people are entitled to their opinion of me, even if it’s not a nice one.

Five: This person who says he won’t associate with me rather proudly asserts his presentation is the same online or off. He seems to think this is a virtue, which is his right. I think it suggests an unsophisticated understanding of how people present themselves in the world, online and off, and how we tune ourselves for different contexts and different purposes. My online presentation, as I’ve noted numerous times, is a version of me tuned for performance — I’m usually telling you what I think, in a hopefully entertaining way. It’s me, but it’s me in a way designed for a specific declamatory purpose. If I used the same version of me in one-on-one conversation, it’d be fucking awful. The version of me for that context is tuned very differently — again, still me, but in a context that’s not all about me.

I have different modes: One for when I’m doing public events, one for when I’m at home with family, one for conversation with friends, one for meeting strangers one on one, one for when I’m collaborating with people on work, and so on. I don’t think this is a particular revelation for anyone, in no small part because I talk about it as a thing I do, but also because pretty much everyone does it; everyone presents differently in different circumstances. I suspect this fellow who maintains he’s the same online and offline is wrong about that, but if he’s not, then he’s a rare individual who perhaps should be studied by sociologists.

The larger point here is that it’s not (necessarily) insincere or bad if your presentation in one medium varies from your presentation in another. Certainly one can have a presentation of self that is false or hypocritical, or have such a wide variance between one presentation and the other that it gives the appearance of either (or both). But there’s a ways to go before you get to that point. I don’t tend to think my presentation in any circumstance is false, although I admit ego and self-interest keeps me from being a perfect observer of me (and sometimes I will willingly lie to people if I think it’s in my interest to do so. Hello, I’m a human and that means I’m complicated). But generally speaking, however I tune me ends up being me. I think this fellow who apparently doesn’t tune himself to circumstances may be making life unduly harder on himself.

Six: There certainly are people I wouldn’t associate with willingly but generally speaking I don’t make a public spectacle out of it. I just… don’t meet them. It’s a big world and one can do a pretty good job of avoiding people if one likes. One can even be at the same convention or in the same building or even at the same party and still do a good job of not spending time with people if one wants. Likewise, I have a (very) small list of people who, if they went out of their way to get into my face, I would tell them to fuck right off. The list is small because a) most people, like me, tend to avoid people they don’t want to associate with, b) my life is good and part of the reason it’s good is that generally I don’t let the assholes get to me. But it’s also small because, again, most people are reasonably socialized and can be polite to each other, even if they’re otherwise at odds. Civility! It can happen.

Seven: To sum up: I totally will in fact say to your face what I say online, but I’m also happy not to unless you decide to make a thing out of it. I suspect most people are that way, and that’s not a bad thing. Also, go ahead and avoid me if you must, I’m cool with that.

Thoughts?