Autism and Digital Life: Managing Identity
by DJ Gallagher
(Or Why I Don’t Mention AS On Dating Websites)
I’m aiming to make this entry the first in a series on using the Internet as an aspie. As someone who lives and works largely on the Net–my job is to create products that help businesses define and market themselves online–I’ve thought a lot about the topic of this post. The Internet and I came of age together. It has been a huge force for positive change in my life, and it’s hard now to imagine functioning day-to-day without it. That said, it is also a place where people can be misunderstood, hurt and abused in new (and very real) ways, so some caution and sophistication is needed.
It’s important to be aware of the distinct identities you create when you use online services and websites: of how public they are, how identifiable they are, what they reveal about you, how connected they are to each other, and how to control them. My generation tends to be good at this. Most of the aspies that I know are ahead of the curve, and are adept at managing their identities; but they’re programmers and engineers. I don’t know what level of skill is really typical. So for starters, I’ll try not to get bogged down in the minutiae, and just describe from a bird’s-eye how I go about managing my own identity. And we’ll see where that gets us.
I have a couple of websites, of which only my personal site is active right now. I link to this site fairly casually. It’s the place I direct people when I want them to know what I’m like as a person. It’s mostly uncensored, which is to say I use four-letter words and discuss most aspects of my life there openly. I don’t talk about things that would traumatize my audience (the litmus test used to be, “won’t traumatize mom”, but traumatizing my mom would be difficult at this point). But I do talk about Asperger Syndrome, about being treated for cancer, about my politics, and about seriously nerdy things. I use my real name and the name of my college, and in a couple places, the name of my company. I don’t see any of this as problematic.
But somewhere in the back of my mind I am conscious that this makes me privileged. I’m privileged because:
- I’m not risking arrest, or legal or financial trouble, for anything I’ve admitted to on my site.
- I’m not risking legal or financial trouble just by speaking my mind. However you may feel about the strength of the first amendment at present time, I’m just not nearly interesting enough to warrant that kind of attention.
- I’m not risking trouble on the job, because I have a very clear sense of how to talk about and not talk about work, most of which I learned from my previous boss back at The MathWorks. And IT companies don’t particularly care about their employees’ politics.
- I’m okay with people knowing these things about me, if they really want to. I have no wish to grow into someone who is somehow inconvenienced by them, or live in a place where they would be harmful.
- I have not been stalked or seriously harassed as an adult (this will be important in a minute)
It’s also a calculated choice. I know the following things about my site:
- It doesn’t get much traffic. Most of that still comes from friends, family, and people reading specific posts that were linked to from elsewhere.
- My name is a lot more common than my site is well-known. If all you have is my name, it isn’t all that easy to find my site (better if you know the name of the site).
- It’s comparatively easy to find me on other sites, especially the social networks Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook.
Since I control what people see when they find me via #3, most people who casually Google me (such as would-be employers) end up interacting with me on my terms. To find out about my website, they have to “friend” me (or in the case of Twitter, sift through a lot of drivel). In fact, if I decide I want to increase my site’s visibility, the very first thing I will do is link to it in my Twitter profile (for complicated reasons, I currently don’t).
Moral of the Story #1: Know your center(s) of gravity – know where people are likely to find you.
One loose end this leaves is that my social feeds (my wall on Facebook, my tweets on Twitter) are semi-public, and they contain a lot of information. Particularly about my location. Looking back now at just how much they reveal, I’m wondering if I ought to re-tune my privacy settings a little. This is one way unsavory types can learn about you, figure out where you live, and even when you’ll be out of the house. I’m not trying to sensationalize here; such incidents are pretty rare, but they make a good point. It’s important to calculate risk, and in doing so, be aware of who you’re expecting trouble from. I know lots of people who keep their feeds private for this reason; I also know lots of people who think the whole concept of publishing details of one’s life in tiny chunks is not a normal and healthy thing. To each his own, I guess.
Anyway, compartmentalizing your identity is an important skill, whether you’re a celebrity moonlighting as a beat poet, a dissident in a police state, or just a high-schooler venting angst (let’s not forget how “friends-only” blogging on LiveJournal revolutionized the way teenagers keep their parents in the dark). It can be very important as an aspie when you’re seeking support and acceptance, because you will often be seeking those things from two different places, and in one of those places you will often not want to self-identify.
The World Wide Web is a very large place, with room aplenty for discrete identities, but you are the gatekeeper who ensures they do not butt heads. If you have something to say that’s really private, don’t do what I do. Having a public site and a separate, anonymous blog on LiveJournal (or Blogger, or WordPress) is actually not a bad idea, though it may be a cliche. But guard the association between that identity and your “real” identity. Pick a different username. Use “friends-only” where applicable. Make sure your e-mail address isn’t shown, or at least have an e-mail address that isn’t also your name. Once you’ve linked one identity to the other, it can be hard to take back.
Moral of the Story #2: Compartmentalize your identity by controlling what people see when they do find you.
Note however that you can, under some circumstances, associate your identities in one direction but not the other, and they tend to stay that way. I’ll explain this concretely with an example.
Suppose that I had a secret pastime of writing terrible fanfiction stories based on my favorite TV show. That kind of secret isn’t so much damaging as it is embarrassing and unsexy. And because my writing was merely terrible and not the world’s worst, only a handful of people would read it–not much risk of a big shift in my center of gravity. Assuming that I control the comments posted to my blog (and I do), I could link to it from my profile on fanfiction.net, so that those two people could learn all the mundane details of my real life. My mother would be none the wiser. I would remain an obscure, albeit not truly anonymous, stain on the face of the English language.
Now let’s examine a more complex, real-world case. I use OKCupid to meet Boston singles (they’re a very geek-friendly dating site). I don’t go on a lot of dates, but the ones I do have tend to go very well, and have resulted in relationships and lasting friendship. Catching someone’s interest online is the single hardest part of this process, and one of the things I have learned from experience is not to out myself in my profile. I’d seen it as a point of pride and integrity, but most people don’t look at it that way. The women I’m talking with are either neurotypical geeks, or borderline/undiagnosed something-or-other geeks. Most react a lot more positively if you describe yourself non-clinically (“geeky, shy, and analytical”) up front. Is that prejudice? Maybe. But we’re talking about people making snap decisions between many options. Given the wide variation in social functioning that underlies AS and autism, I can’t really blame them if they’d rather not give the benefit of the doubt.
I’m doubly careful about the connection between my OKCupid profile and my website because of this. My blog is the uncensored narrative of my life, and this is one case where I’m protective of it. My dating profile doesn’t mention that I have a blog. It’s something I might get around to in conversation, but usually not until after we’ve exchanged other contacts–IM and Facebook screen names. The longer we’ve been talking, the less impactful that revelation is going to be on their impression of me.
Quite separate is the issue of being found on OKCupid. I could link to my profile, from here or elsewhere, and you could click on it and read all kinds of things; and doing so would not compromise the obscurity of my aspie identity to the ladies I’m chatting with. The above logic applies, and only a little bit of obscurity is needed. People having conversations on dating sites don’t generally run dragnets for each other’s real identities, since asking questions is about a million times more productive.
In practice, though, I realized want to keep some breathing room between these identities. Neither one is linked to the other. My dating profile bleeds a bit more information about my sex life than I am comfortable having on the record. And that’s okay. I have argued that compartmentalization is a healthy practice. It means I have another place to spill what’s on my mind if the subject matter doesn’t fit elsewhere, another degree of freedom in my use of the Net; and that if I am trolled or harassed under one identity, it doesn’t affect the other.
To review, briefly: I have a place where I can talk about almost anything, for the benefit of whoever wants to listen. I have social network profiles that reveal varying information about me, often with my specific consent to specific people (for instance: when I was first diagnosed with cancer, and wasn’t ready to tell all my friends, I used Facebook lists to limit my medical updates to a smaller group). I have some additional services I use to share specific things with friends, like my exact GPS location, which is sometimes useful for finding each other in the city. I have identities that are clearly linked, but only in one direction. And I have identities that I keep pristine, not aware of one another. I have a surprising amount of choice in how all these pieces fit together, and how easy it is to get from one to another. So much choice that even I, a professional Web developer, am sometimes struck by how inconsistent and haphazard it all turned out. Great… now I want to go back and mess with all my settings.
Rest assured that if you feel this way, and it all seems a bit daunting, you’re getting the first and most important thing right. You’re paying attention. Everything else follows from that.
I’ll end with a related story, about the implications of screen names. I’ve been using AOL Instant Messenger for more than ten years, and I’ve had the same screen name for most of that time. It’s starting to get a little dated. I recently learned it is now possible to use your e-mail address (with the “@” and everything) as a screen name, which matches the format of user names in Google Talk and other XMPP-based IM services. I thought, awesome, now I’ll have the same screen name on AIM as on GTalk and Windows Live. And I rushed to start using it in place of that other, totally lame screen name, when my conversations on OKCupid would move over to IM.
This led to a mildly embarrassing realization. These conversations don’t start out on a real-name basis; in fact I’ve gotten as far as the first date without actually knowing the real name of the person I was meeting. My e-mail address is my full name. Thus, the new screen name is also my full name. This caused reactions ranging from bemusement, and unsolicited curiosity about my middle initial, to (I think) mild annoyance that I was indirectly volunteering information they weren’t ready to share. It generally made things more awkward. And I’ve since realized that even in 2010, when securing your brand on the Web and on social networks is such a big deal, nobody cares if an AIM name is silly.
Moral of the Story #3: don’t take yourself too seriously.