This entry is part 4 of 6 in the series 10 reasons to stop apologizing for your online life

Between Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together and my recent presentation at Northern Voice, I find myself thinking a lot about the post I wrote last summer on 10 reasons to stop apologizing for your online life. That post was a call to arms, to embrace our online lives as real and stop distinguishing between online and IRL — “In Real Life”. But what really interests me about us embracing our online lives as real are the specific practices that help people live those real lives with integrity.

The promise (and the difficulty) of translating the possibilities for online authenticity into daily lived reality are clearest when you look at the way the Internet can help us be our truest selves. This post was my effort at outlining some practices that can help.

A few years ago I attended a conference where I’d done my homework, Googling the people I was most excited to meet. So when I was introduced to G., I had my opening line all ready: “It’s great to meet you! There aren’t many government officials who manage to launch a successful screenwriting career, too.”

Her eyes widened and her boss — standing right next to her — looked just as surprised. “I didn’t know you were a screenwriter,” he said.

That exchange taught me a couple of lessons. One is that you should never assume that what you learn about someone on Google is known to the people in their offline life. But that was overshadowed by the realization that the Internet could give voice to passions and dreams that might otherwise remain not only unknown, and unexplored.

Or as I put it in my latest blog post for Harvard Business Review:

When you commit to being your real self online, you discover parts of yourself you never dared to share offline.

That’s one of 10 reasons to stop apologizing for your life online that I offer in my post. It’s a response to the gathering storm over how the Internet is making us shallow and how what we really need to do is unplug.

But the off switch is an awfully blunt instrument for dealing with the human challenges we face online. Instead, I argue that we can rediscover the Internet, and find a way of being online with integrity and purpose. The key is to throw out the false dichotomy between online and “real” life, and instead focus on the ways we can make our online lives real and meaningful.

And one of the key ways to make your online life more meaningful is to use it as an outlet for self-discovery and self-expression. Here are 5 ways you can use the Internet to get to know yourself a little better:

  1. Create a pseudonym. It’s great that you’re building a personal brand online. But if that brand is linked to your legal name or professional reputation, there are going to be things you don’t say and communities you don’t participate in. Create a truly untraceable pseudonym — one that isn’t linked to your business e-mail address — and use it to participate in personal conversations. Being your real self isn’t the same as using your real name; in fact, it’s sometimes easier to be authentic when it feels like nobody’s looking.
  2. Get support. Once you’re liberated by your pseudonym, you can get encouragement on your secret dreams, or support on the problems or challenges that are too awkward to discuss face-to-face or online under your own name. Write that first novel, with the support of a group for new authors. Find out if you’re supposed to have red spots down there. Talk to other people whose spouse does the same annoying thing that has you fuming at yours.
  3. Bookmark your passions. If you’re using Twitter, delicious or Google Reader’s “favorites” button to keep track of relevant blog posts and web sites, you may have discovered that this is an easy way to solidify and showcase your professional expertise. The same tools can help you discover your passions and interests — if you create separate accounts or tags for tracking the stuff that catches your eye, but has nothing to do with work. Spend a few months bookmarking stuff simply because you like it and you will then have a file you can review to notice any patterns or interests you didn’t know you had.
  4. Budget for personal time online. Now that social media has become so central to so much of our professional life, it’s easy to lose track of the joys that made us fall in love with social media in the first place: Mommy blogs. Silly Flickr photos. Intense discussions about The Simpsons. Commit to spending a certain number of hours online each week for the pure fun of it, and you’ll have a chance to connect with people who care about what you have to say not because you’re the leading expert in your professional field, but simply because they can’t understand how anyone could like Marge more than Homer.
  5. Maintain a personal web presence. You may be the most successful blogger or Tweeter in your company, but nobody should be all work and no play online. Create a channel for your own thoughts and expressions, whether it’s a family blog that you keep entirely separate from your work blog, a Facebook account where you only connect with a small number of close friends, or a LiveJournal that you keep entirely anonymous. You’ll know you’ve got a personal presence that works for self-exploration if you feel genuinely uninhibited about sharing your half-baked ideas and self-doubts.

How has the web helped you develop a more honest sense of yourself? I’d love to hear your stories.

Originally published July 15, 2010.

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