on becoming public

For ds106 this week, we are to create a domain and reflect upon that act. Since I’ve had a domain for many years (so long that I can’t quite remember when I got my first one), this is making me think about the turns of research I’ve engaged in and how they are reflected by the changes in how we look at participation and engagement in online environments.

I’ve been “online” since the mid-1980s when I began to actively use the GOPHER system during my (very long) undergraduate career. I had an instructor (a Humanities professor, no less) who required us to use GOPHER email to discuss ideas and concepts. It turned into a social activity in which many of us, sitting in the same room with a bank of computers, would chat via the system rather than to that person sitting next to us.

When, in the early 1990s, I ventured into other online social activities (Prodigy, AOL, CompuServe) it felt different. No longer was I chatting with people I had met in person, but with people from (typically) around the US. I didn’t know them by anything other than what they posted. I became somewhat more guarded. I chatted a lot, but I never posted images of myself. I didn’t feel safe doing that, and somehow my photographic likeness was akin to sharing something very personal about myself. I would discuss personal issues, but I didn’t post photos of myself. Even when I got my first blog, around 1997, I think, I didn’t post images of myself. This was a little too personal for me.

In the early 2000s, I did post my first image of myself. I remember shaking and worrying. Why? I’m not sure, except that it meant, for certain, a type of judgment that comes from our visceral selves would be employed by those viewing the image. I wanted to be judged for what and how I contributed to a community rather than what or how I appeared to others in a visual format.

During my Master’s degree program, I did research on the self-representation of women in online environments. This was, in so many ways, a way for me to understand why and how women portray themselves visually to specific audiences. It also was a way for me to understand why I may have been reticent to portray myself visually online.

Now that I’m working on my PhD, I’m interested in both the visual and textual representations of online inhabitants — and how their ethos and identity are constructed in very short bursts of engagement: the PostSecret postcard. What does this tell us about that composer? Why is it important? How does it shape engagement? When is sharing too much? Or is it ever?

So what does all of this have to do with constructing a domain and beginning writing on that domain? Everything. This is a personal space, and yet it isn’t. It’s so very public. Many people have talked to me because of this domain. Many people have stayed in my life over the years because of it. It connects me in various ways to others that I wouldn’t normally have a way to connect with. And it shares a personal side of me that I wouldn’t normally project in a public space. Maybe because it’s mine. It’s a safe space for me. I can turn off comments if I want. I can make posts private if I choose (which I rarely do).

I am still very careful, however, in choosing what I post (which is why posts are so infrequent). I am a private, somewhat shy person. I don’t want to rant online, then regret what I’ve said later. I’d rather err on the side of caution and tread carefully. There are people on the other side of this message. People who may be sensitive or not, caring or not, insightful or not, but people who may expand my ideas and concepts of the world and help me grow in different ways than I thought possible. This is my way of becoming (and being) a public persona.

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