How Many Personas Do You Maintain Online (and Why)?

In the not too distant past people often defined themselves by saying they wore several “hats.” One could wear the mother hat, the nurse hat, the wife hat, the lover hat–and switch them off and on with no one thinking anything of it, because they could still see that it was really just you.

It’s different now, and instead of switching hats–you switch personas, which, for Internet users, is more like switching skins.

As a freelancer, do you wear different hats, to allow you to show different parts of your personality without jeopardizing your image?

Who Are You?

An online persona is an identity that a user establishes to represent themselves on the Internet. Personas first showed up when people started setting up user accounts at different sites using different login information. Some carried it further by entering different addresses, phone numbers, and birth dates in an effort to guard against identity theft. It didn’t take long for most people to accumulate half a dozen or so aliases.

The next step was the use of avatars–small icon images used to represent the user. People often chose to use an image of a celebrity or a favorite cartoon character, and eventually some had custom artwork created to use as their online image.

Is That Your Real Name?

The real surge of multiple personas came about in the last few years with the widespread use of social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Personas are so common that it’s unusual to find someone using their actual name and information. Many people see no problem with this, and don’t see any difference between using different personas on the Internet and using them in real life. After all, you probably behave differently around your parents than you do around your friends, your husband than your girlfriends, your doctor rather than your soccer teammates.

When you’re a freelancer, it’s easy to bleed your professional and personal lives together–after all, often times you’re working from home or coworking in a place outside your office, so it’s tough to really feel like you need a professional identity. After all, as a freelancer you’re representing yourself right? Kind of. You need to keep a line drawn, and this is where personas are perfect.

Freelancers can maintain “professional” personas for their work related interactions and “personal” personas for other interests.

Here is an example of how people use personas to maintain different identities for their personal and professional interests:

  • Susan is a teen-aged Anime geek. She maintains a large collection of manga. She can tell you every detail of every character in all of her favorites and is considered an expert by many of her Facebook followers. She also draws in Anime style and has a large fan base eagerly awaiting the next chapter of the original Anime series that she writes and illustrates.
  • Eighteen year old BrendaB has several level 80 characters in the widely popular massively multi-player game called World of Warcraft. Although young, she is one of the founders of a large guild of players and often mentors “newbies” when they join. You can count on seeing her in game at least 20 hours a week.
  • Laurel is a 36 year old professional copywriter with a long list of customers who receive short messages about her availability via her Twitter account. She is well known and respected among the professional copywriting community because she has never missed a deadline and will take on emergency and quick turn over work–and get it done.

Are You Surprised?

Would it surprise you to know that all three of these personas are really the same person? Would you feel deceived if you found out–or would you even care? If you’re a freelancer, do you maintain different identities to let out different parts of your personality through your work? Your answer will probably define your generation.

Baby boomers and Generations X and Y mostly defined themselves as honest and strove to maintain their reputation among their peers as a personal brand. Most were not born into the digital age. Generation V–the first truly digital and virtual generation–has grown up with digital media for learning, sharing, and, in some cases, socializing, and the concept of personas is readily accepted.

The Professional Persona

The use of online personas spread like wildfire at first, but now some realities are setting in. Many high school and college students started personas without a thought as to how those personas might affect future employment opportunities–but a lot of companies with the corporate mentality of honesty and integrity don’t look lightly upon the practice of maintaining false identities.

As a freelance designer, you can often times get away with not having your image for your avatars in the first place. Often times you can use your brand logo, so people can look past your persona and see you for your art.

The same goes with writers–many are interested in the words that come out, as opposed to who you are, so as long as they are getting quality work, you’re safe to hide behind a different persona to write about things you normally wouldn’t want attached to your name. Often times you may want to write outside of your typical style, but do not want to sacrifice your audience (or clients). You can get around this by maintaining different identities (hey, actors have stage names!).

Strangely enough, as Generation V has entered the corporate world the new use for these personas is to establish clearly separated personal and career aliases. Many working professionals have one standard alias for use with friends and another for use with their work. The professional alias allows users to provide an effective presentation on social media sites, blogs, and other web resources, and opens the door to cross-promotion of these varied web tools. On the other hand, media like party pictures, your love life, your political opinions, and other personal data can remain just that–personal–behind the screen of an alias used only among your less business-oriented social group.

Your Turn

While some people have claimed that the use of multiple personas is dishonest and unhealthy, they are probably here to stay. Certainly, their use is changing and evolving over time, but the “rules” have yet to be set in stone. What about you? How many personas do you maintain, and why?

Image by Chiara Marra