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The conflicted identifies of a life lived online

August 2, 2020

I’ve been living my life more completely online over the last four months than at any time previously. It’s been an acceleration of existing trends rather than a radical change of direction, but there are some side-effects that have started to encroach on the ways that I live online.

In my day-to-day life I work in a corporate environment with one of those job titles that usually prompts the question ‘So what does that mean, then?’ And, following an elucidation, a polite, if none-the-wiser, ‘Ah, right.’

Like many companies during lockdown, my employer has focused on becoming more visible online. Which can only mean the dreaded corporate mire of thought leadership, webinars, and #contentmarketing. Suddenly, the social networks and online identities I’ve built around interests outside the workplace have been coopted to serve careerist purposes.

I have a significant interest in education, the field in which I work. But it’s not the whole of me. I am a Venn diagram of education, endurance sports, writing, literature, local vegetarian-friendly cuisine, wildlife, weird AI, craft beer, and home-brewing.

Living online, there’s a fine line to tread between presenting a work persona (because, let’s face it, potential clients, colleagues, and employers Google names as a matter of due diligence) and pursuing personal interests that may mix poorly with the professional.

Examples: A lot of my work is in Muslim countries in the Middle East, and yet as a cultural Westerner, I’m quite open about enjoying a drink. Some of my work is in Central Asia where large dishes of plaff and slabs of horsemeat are common features of business meetings, which as a vegetarian I must politely push around my plate. I work in educational publishing, where writing for pleasure is a cliche and generally treated as a source of disappointment.

Everyone is complex. Everyone has interests outside the professional context. No one person lives life solely laser-focused on one specific domain. Sometimes interests might seem mutually incompatible, or contradictory, and it’s in these mixing of ingredients that alchemy happens.

‘Opinions own’, of course. Don’t share stuff you wouldn’t want a prospective employer finding, of course. Lock accounts. Tighten privacy settings. But, only connect.

The thing that I’m struggling with the most is that a creative enterprise – and there is no more creative enterprise than writing, creating worlds and lives from nothing – should not be incompatible with a profession that requires empathy, understanding of the macro and its impact on the micro, and the ability to imagine a better future for young people. Yet, I sense it is. And I don’t know how much energy I have to fight that perception.

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