The Condition: Personality Seepage

by Bethlehem Shoals

I can’t tell if the Internet is a never-ending job, an inescapable workplace, or both. I suppose my job is “writing” (I try to stay a notch above “warrior of content”) but it still feels weird to introduce myself as “a writer.” In my ears this always sounds like I’ve been revising a historical novel about my great-uncle’s flight from a Cossack bandit gang in the latter part of the Crimean war, complete with an appendix explaining several varieties of cannon.

For pretty much all my waking hours, I sit in front of a laptop, juggling windows and frantically typing as the world goes white behind me. Multi-tasking was a lie, put on this earth to expire alongside stock options and supervisors who care. It’s a word that splits the difference between several planes of distraction while providing satisfying outcomes for none. I know this, and yet my idea of work is tackling five to ten things at once. Chats, email exchanges, writing, Tumblring and Twittering make me whole, or at least create the illusion of meaningful activity. I suppose I’m worried about getting any one thing too right, or too wrong. But there’s also the sense that inhabiting the web in this way, or constructing this kind of web environment, is productive, even necessary.

In 2006, Dave Chappelle’s “If The Internet Was A Real Place” questioned our passive acceptance of pop-up ads and unwanted inbox invasion. Things have since improved — sort of. The miserable state of publishing, Internet and otherwise, has brought back the pop-up and rollover like an advancing zombie army. More importantly, even if the Internet experience has been streamlined — through smarter and less unruly sites, browsers, and gadgets, as well as targeted fun-fests like Instapaper — we still choose density, accomplished now through a clutter of our own making. Chappelle’s conceit has been turned inside out, several times over. The web isn’t a fantasy land, it’s where our daily lives unfold. It is a real place. It hasn’t invaded our lives with its internet-ness; at any given moment, we’re the ones who brings ourselves willingly to it. And while in his sketch, each stranger baldly announces his intentions, today’s characters aren’t only harder and harder to tell apart — they’re now often fragments of our own selves.

This splintering leads to a disorder that, in super-scientific fashion, we will call “Personality Seepage.” Personality seepage is the consequence of that nether-state, when we put too much of ourselves online at once. Windows, boxes, and browsers look so much alike, and sit so close to each other on our laptop screens, is it any wonder that there is some communication — or seepage — between boxes?

Last Thursday, I caught myself with five active chat windows open; one email just sent and two more saved as drafts; a Google doc hovering; Twitter and Tumblr humming along; and, always impassive in the background, that Microsoft Word document called “Book Proposal.” A real-life friend I’ve known for years wanted confirmation, once and for all, that Delonte West had not slept with LeBron James’s mom last spring. A former coworker and I were exchanging photos of “wheelhouses,” which I had always thought was much more like a “woodshed.” I was also trembling over a discussion of the bizness with a mentor-like figure who intimidates the hell out of me; gossiping and planning big things with an online confidant, one of those folks whose chat window stays active all day; and engaged in the latest round of ice-breaking with a new web pal. These conversations sat in Gmail, all in a row, flashing and demanding my attention in fits and starts.

With each of these people, I was sharing a different part of myself, or at least adopting a slightly different persona. The written word, with no face behind it, is targeted like that. I have no idea what my brain activity looked like at the moment, but there’s just no way I could be that many different people at once.

At least several times a day, I find myself misplacing tone and intention. There are supposed to be clear boundaries here, and yet as different as the interactions are, the relative homogeneity of the interface is what dominates. If I lose focus, the human behind the chat window, or looming over the email-in-progress, drifts away. “I have long admired your publication” becomes “I love the stuff you guys are doing”; I use capitalization, and labor over word choice, in a chat about people who are dicks. I find myself replacing the stately italics with all-caps in a for-pay piece of writing. Exclamation points and emoticons crop up where there’s no guarantee the audience will get the irony behind them. We’ve all had the experience of typing in the wrong window; instead of mechanical errors, though, these are instances of bringing the wrong person to the window. It’s not just a question of voice, or mannerisms. There’s the relationship I project onto the conversation, and the part of me that’s implicated in it. Sometimes it’s as simple as business versus casual — although, I would argue that, as a result of Personality Seepage, these lines are becoming increasingly blurred, even in the abstract. More often, it’s about what side of personality I’m stressing, or concealing. I can be incredibly shy and polite, or a vindictive egomaniac. Same goes for over-serious and silly. We know who we are, maybe, but others rarely get the whole picture — or at least not the full range. The web aggravates this fragmentation.

The cure is simple enough: Close windows, limit contact, take deep breathes and force myself to remember who’s behind the screen, figuratively speaking. But the real irony here might be that we don’t want to cure ourselves of Personality Seepage. If enough of ourselves is up on the screen at once, we feel whole, even real. It renforces the belief (a necessary one for some of us) that bringing our lives to the web doesn’t mean draining them (or us) of anything, well, human. It’s almost like we’re reconstructing ourselves, making sure we don’t ever end up too limited, replicating strands of our psycho-social DNA in a thousand boxes. The more time we waste online, and the more grief it causes for us, the closer we come to making the computer reflect — rather than refract — the person sitting behind it.

Bethlehem Shoals is a founding member of Pay attention to his book and FD’s art emporium.

Photo by Shannon Kringen.