On Sharing and Losing Control of an Online Persona

Mark Sample's picture

When it comes to scholarship, pedagogy, and service—the three pillars of the professoriate—I am a staunch supporter of open access and the ideal of an intellectual commons that we can all learn from, discuss and critique, and build upon. But I recently had an unsettling experience that’s made me question my assumptions about making so much of my life public.

My experience played out against the milieu of Twitter, where I’ve been active for over five years. My Twitter stream is comprised of digital humanists, electronic literature creators and theorists, videogame studies folks, and a hodge podge of writers and publishers in the humanities and beyond. My tweets run the gamut from thoughts about teaching to jokes about higher education to comments about current events. I also tweet about the balance between my professional and personal life, a balance that is a struggle to maintain, given that I commute several hundred miles every week. Occasionally, I find myself growing bored with Twitter and I play around with the medium itself. I think many of my online friends know this about me: I like to toe the line between seriousness and playfulness, and if I ever appear to be making things up, I probably am. That’s my Twitter persona.

On January 25, 2013, I began tweeting about what was supposed to be a routine commuter flight from Washington-Dulles International to my home in Charlotte, North Carolina. My tweets grew increasingly frantic though, as I began detailing an emerging, mysterious disaster. Over the course of the next few days I continued this narrative, which eventually wound up with my interrogation at the hands of a strange foreign agent. And finally, after four days of such tweets, following the release of a murky video to my family, my Twitter account disappeared. Poof! I was gone.

Of course, the whole story was made up. Or, mostly made up. It was true that I had been stranded for a time in Dulles that evening and really was concerned about making it home in time for my son’s birthday. The character of John was based on a real ticketing agent as well. But the disaster story was made up, which many of my readers recognized at the time. The culminating deletion of my Twitter account was very real though. It was a fitting resolution to my harrowing account of captivity and apparent escape—a mic drop as one of my followers put it.

I had planned the whole thing for a while. In fact, my Dulles disaster continued a story I had begun three years earlier, a thread I was thrilled some of my forensic-minded followers picked up on. And—truth be told—the story is not done yet. There is a third part, though when it will appear I cannot say. But it is planned.

After I deleted my Twitter account is when the unexpected and unsettling event happened.

Actually, two events. One offline and one on. First, someone whom I knew only in passing but who had been concerned that my Dulles tweets were not entirely fictive had tracked me down on campus, in real life. As I headed into my classroom to teach, the person was waiting there, outside the room. The person’s intentions were clearly to make sure I was okay, but I felt that a line between my Twitter persona and my real life identity had been blurred. What had begun as a tightly scripted story about paranoia and conspiracy had leaked into my daily life.

The second event occurred solely online. I had planned on remaining absent from Twitter for three weeks, time enough for a sense of finality to settle around my story. At that point I was intending on reactivating my Twitter account. (Twitter allows you to resuscitate a deleted account if you do it within 30 days of deletion.) But then, just days after deleting my account, a slew of Twitter accounts cropped up in my name, and if not exactly in my name, then in my image. Furthermore, these accounts appeared to be continuing the story of my captivity. Leonardo Flores has done a good job documenting these various apocryphal accounts (he found a total of nine accounts that purport to be me).

So this is it: my Twitter persona had been hijacked. The story I had planned for years had been hijacked. Plundered. Derailed. Even worse, because of my reputation for playfulness online, nobody wouldn’t believe these accounts weren’t me. I was devastated when I discovered the first of these accounts, and that devastation was swiftly followed by a feeling of disbelief and shame at my own reaction. I’m always going on and on about remixing this and mashing up that and the thrill of unexpected uses of your work and then when it happens to me I cry foul.

And I did cry foul, or as near as one can on Twitter. I filed several “impersonation” reports with the service, a surprisingly retro bureaucratic procedure that had me faxing a copy of my driver’s license to Twitter. Each of the three cases I reported were dismissed, the official response being that “Twitter users are allowed to create parody, commentary, and fan accounts” (See screenshot below).

So the accounts in my name and with my avatar were not impersonating me so much as they were fan responses? I am gratified to think that I might have “fans,” except that no matter how much I protest—or because I protest?—that these account are not me, many people believe that they are.

The “Never Cry Wolf” irony of the situation (I have, I must admit, created fake Twitter accounts that I have denied ownership of) is not lost on me. And there’s an additional layer of irony in that what academics commonly fear when it comes to sharing their work online—that someone will steal it and publish it under his or her own name—is the exact opposite of what happened to me. Somebody else was supplying the work, and I only supplied the name. I was the byline to someone else’s story.

That’s what sharing online gets you. Share enough of your personality and you’ve given the world a blueprint to be you. And you’re not even that interesting.

In the end I have decided to surrender any pretense of control I have over my online persona. Or rather, I have come to recognize that there is a persona I control, but there are offshoots out there as well, like the non-canonical Never Say Never Again to my official Octopussy. We coexist. Maybe we even merge a little. It’s the social media update to the Turing Test: if a status update consistently tricks other people into thinking that it’s you, then it might as well be you. So I—and we—continue to share online, creating a commons, being common, until one of us once again does the uncommon.

Comments

Jamie Henthorn's picture

My initial thought in reading

My initial thought in reading this was, what was your claim to this story? On Twitter, other individuals were responding to you, helping develop the story while they also consumed it. So, in some ways, it was already something shared and co-created. Obviously, you started the story, but you are right in that there is only so much control we have over an online persona. I also find it significant that one of your biggest claims to the story is that you were at the airport while you wrote it. That bridge between digital and material space is interesting to me and I am still thinking of why. 

I wonder why, also, if people wanted to be part of the story, they didn't take on alternative personas, other individuals that might be in the airport as well. So many Marks, it's hard to keep the stories straight. 

Matthew Beale's picture

Twitter fanfic

This story strikes me as essentially taking the same arc as a beloved TV show that is canceled by the network but continues a rich existence through fanfiction websites. The followers of Mark's story did not know that, when he canceled his Twitter account, that he intended to reactivate it within the month to continue the story. The fans, eager to see the narrative through, appropriated the character of "Mark" and worked out a multitude of possible story outcomes. 

Patrick Murray-John's picture

The wire's response

Confessional time: I was wire:59458,62

Here's a bit of what I was thinking and responding to.

First off, I did kinda struggle about whether I was intruding, and balancing that against exactly what you mention — we know your playfulness, and often enjoy people tinkering with the medium. I wasn't sure if you would read that interaction as welcome or not. So I gambled, looked for clues in if/whether you picked up on what the wire was saying and doing. In essence, I think I saw it as a narrative game in which I was learning the rules — or we were mutually making up the rules — as we went along, like a Twitter + storytelling + Calvinball.

As it turns out, though, I/The Wire weren't responding to you — I started that account to be playful with one of those other accounts. One of them referred to a wire being in your/whomever's ear, with some pseudo-datatransfer stuff. (I confess, I think that the idea of a wire sticking out of your ear sounds very much like you.)

Don't know why, but something about that wire intrigued me as a character of its own. A poor, hapless little thing just trying to do its job of making a connection, and being denied that. So I wanted to anthropomorphize that and see if any story appeared. Kinda like Jamie said, too, some other character running around sounded interesting, and I wanted to see what happened.

As it went along, and especially as the various Marks proliferated, I think I started to sense that something else was happening, or for whatever reason the unfolding story wasn't going to settle into some coherence. So I gave up that game and story, and decided to wait to see what was really going one. I'd also heard rumors that you really weren't involved, at least not anymore, so for me the game kinda fizzled.

So, I apologize for the hijacking. Was in the spirit of playfulness that you embody and enable so well.

Roger Whitson's picture

Is there a real Mark Sample at all?

I have my doubts. I'm starting to question all the times I met his material self at THATCamp and MLA. Were those androids? Twitterbots? Archons of the demiurge? 

I started thinking in the lines Jaime and Patrick brought up as well, since last night I read the first chapter in Spreadable Media about the Twitter users who impersonated characters from Mad Men in 2008. As they spoke about the attempt by AMC executives to initially remove the accounts, then — after backlash from fans — to reinstate them, I wondered how this would work in an academic environment. Jenkins, Ford, and Green argue that companies are beginning to see that greater fan participation leads to a deeper appreciation of their brand and are also sensing that fan-generated content requires a more granular method of assessing show engagement than things like the number of times a site is visited. I loved the bit they quoted from WeAreSterlingCooper.org, the site that emerged after the removal of the Twitter accounts: 

Fan fiction. Brand hijacking. Copyright misuse. Sheer devotion. Call it what you will, but we call it the blurred line between content creators and content consumers, and it's not going away. We're your biggest fans, your die-hard proponents, and when your show gets canceled we'll be among the first the pass around the petition. Talk to us. Befriend us. But please, don't treat us like criminals. 

If, as you often suggest, open content drives better interaction with your scholarship, could you not make an argument that fan-generated responses like the ones on Twitter argue for a different type of scholarly engagement that — perhaps — we haven't yet identified? If we looked at this episode in the most generous light, i.e. simply that these are expressions of an emergent fan base, how do we assess this phenomenon in terms of things like "impact?" It might be too easy to call these activities forms of citation, but they do embody a form of engagement that calls to be recognized in some form beyond simply losing control. 

I'd suggest creating fake accounts of the fake accounts and pushing it even further.