Thursday, October 8, 2009

Becoming the Persona

Mac SE
My first real computer experience occurred while writing term papers in graduate school on a Macintosh in the school library. Was that ever back in the day. I had to use a boot disk to start the thing, store my data on another, and print documents in dot matrix. I think it had 64 bits of RAM. But I loved that little Mac and it worked like a trooper.

A couple of years later, still enamored with Apple, I bought a Performa and discovered the incipient entity known as the World Wide Web. Since my computer came loaded with America Online, getting connected was fairly straightforward and it wasn't long before I was hosting chat rooms in an area called Issues in Mental Health every week.

Compared to Facebook and Twitter it was rudimentary, I suppose, but we managed to create a sense of community among people who, for the most part, might never have met otherwise. The anonymity helped (everyone used virtual identities) and comments seemed spontaneous and disingenuous. What fascinated me was how the group dynamics were similar to those I'd observed face to face. Some members were mostly silent -- "lurkers" we called them -- while others carried the conversation and encouraged the timid to join in. If a member became rude or unruly, others would set limits. It was really quite healthy, overall.

Looking back, I found the experience of creating and fleshing out an online personality to be genuinely refreshing. For one thing, even though it was still me, it was me in a way that was more confident, comfortable, and frankly, more interesting than the person I felt I was in daily life. He was definitely smarter than I was and a better writer. But, since I wasn't conjuring this persona out of thin air, he had to have come from somewhere. And the better I got to know him, the more like him I think (I hope) I became.

I'm bringing this up today because there's a growing dialogue in psychiatry about the impact of online social networking, especially on teenagers. While I'm not ready to weigh-in on that yet, I thought it might be a good idea to share my own history as a starting point. If you'd like to read more, I've added a link in the sidebar to one of my favorite sites (Psychiatric Times) where you can begin.


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