Your online persona isn’t owned by you

Published on Tuesday, October 19, 2010 By Brad Wardell In Personal Computing

One of the great misconceptions of the Internet is that people have control over how they are perceived online.  This illusion is a carry over from “the real world” where people can manage the perception they give off by how they dress, how they speak, and how they present themselves.

On the Internet, without the benefit of people being able to really “know” a person, they only get fractional glimpses of you. As a result, people have to fill in the holes with their own preconceived notions.

The closest thing in the real world we get to that is in politics where savvy politicians do their best to make sure there are large holes in which their handlers can then encourage people to fill those gaps with their hopes and dreams. But on the Internet, it’s virtually impossible to have any control over how those gaps in perception are filled.

My day job is at Stardock where I’m the President and CEO.  It’s a company with dozens of different projects in development at any one time.  I generally don’t get involved in any particular project unless it is (a) critical to the company overall and ( needs executive intervention.  Unless you’re a mom and pop shop, you can’t micro-manage any given project or you doom it to failure.

When an executive intervenes, their goal is to bring in resources from other units to solve a given problem. When things go well, it’s invisible to the general public. When things go wrong, well, that’s when one begins to lose control of their online persona.

For example, my own persona has been filled with the perception that I’m a “control freak”.  Those who have worked at Stardock know this is the opposite of reality.  When things are going well, I just read through reports from the PMs and give a thumbs up.  The joke on (a site we own that few people are even aware of because it runs smoothly) I rubber stamp everything from the PM.  Same for and the Enterprise group.  The same is usually true on the games side of our company as well.  My job is to make sure the PMs have the resources they need to execute and to provide a general design of the given product in question with the PM filling in the details (whether that be DeskScapes, Multiplicity, Object Desktop, GalCiv, Elemental, or you name it).  On external projects, I’m usually more hands off unless things start to “go south”. 

Usually I can intervene and solve it and the public is never aware of how close things came to blowing up. Sometimes, however,  the intervention comes too late or is beyond my capability to solve. In nearly 20 years, we’ve only had two big failures – the Demigod networking and the Elemental launch.  In both cases, my job was to identify the problems, work with the team to design a solution and then gather the resources to make it happen.  In Demigod’s case, I brought in the Impulse team to fix it. That was something only the CEO could do since Stardock’s game publishing group obviously had no say over the Impulse dev team.  In Elemental’s case, we lacked sufficient management to implement the game design and in this case, my intervention involved personally jumping into the code to see what elements of the design could get in.  In the end, it was not even close to sufficient –- though if you work enough 100+ hour weeks in a row and you’d be surprised how your mind can fool you into thinking everything’s fine (it’s still good! it’s still good! it’s just a little slimy, it’s still good!).

The point being, when you are online, the more activity that surrounds you in one way or the other the more people will want to fill in the gaps of your public persona.  The narrative can be positive or negative.  Sometimes the narrative works in your favor beyond any reasonable justification and other teams it works just the opposite.

My advice to those who, like me, “live on the net” is this: Don’t get too invested in your online persona. You will never be able to control how people perceive you because human nature abhors a vacuum and they will fill it with their hopes, dreams, and prejudices that have nothing to do with who you really are.