Digital Personas Part 1: Authenticity + Social Media

What is a Digital Persona?

Shin-Megami Tensei: Persona is a relatively obscure Japanese Role-Playing game that has been in production since 1996. Exploring themes of social pressure, self-actualization, and friendship, the Persona series usually follows a group of teenagers who adopt a “persona” in order to become the best, most powerful version of themselves. The idea of this “persona” was theorized by famous Psychologist Carl Jung, who noted the difference between our internal and external representations of self. 

In his 1934 book “The Development of Personality” he described it as:

“The persona is a complicated system of relations between individual consciousness and society, fittingly enough a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and, on the other, to conceal the true nature of the individual.” – Carl Jung

In the age of content creation, and face-first content, we need to have a healthy understanding of  what I call our digital persona — that is, the virtual mask we show our virtual audience — in order to create authentic interactions between our true selves and our audience. This is important because dishonest brands can be absolutely OBLITERATED when an audience finds out their digital persona is an absolute artifice.

Take for instance the once famed Liver King — a sort of post-Macho Man Randy Savage personality who claimed eating raw meat, specifically animal livers, was responsible for his hyper-masculine, ultra-muscled physique. Despite being asked numerous times if he was “natty” — a weight lifting term designating an “all natural” physique created without the use of steroids — he always denied use of “gear” (ie: steroids like testosterone, tren, anavar, etc).

To the trained eye — that is, literally anyone who has stepped foot in the gym for more than three months— his ruse was obvious. But, due to his charismatic persona, he had gained a massive following of young men who wanted to emulate his persona. When he was eventually outed as taking thousands of dollars worth of steroids a month — that is, when his audience found out the gaping distance between his true self and his persona — his brand was destroyed. 

However, the mistake he made was an easy mistake to make. Utilizing his innate charisma, he soared to TikTok fame and made millions of dollars. All he had to do was keep telling the story — and it was a truly great story. With the rise in popularity of the carnivore diet and a mythological physique, people wanted to believe it — it was the perfect formula, until it wasn’t. Once our authenticity is called into question, it’s often lost forever. 

When I began building my first TikTok channel, I made a similar mistake. While I wasn’t hurting people or necessarily lying, I built my persona inauthentically based on what I was seeing perform well. I was chasing the virality of an inauthentic digital persona instead of trying to build a community based around something authentic and true to myself. 

Running a channel for my stoner doom band, Merlock, I created a character that was a sort of stupid stoner who fell into bizarre conspiracy theories like the “Big Riff” industry, talked like an uber-stoner, only listened to Sleep’s hour long masterpiece “Dopesmoker” and was constantly “z0inked.” While I did partake in my fair share of herbal remedies at the time, I also found myself gradually transitioning out of that lifestyle as I became more focused on my personal growth and mental health.

This led to a long period of time where I was at odds with my gradually more and more inauthentic digital persona; at some point, I started playing a character. It became exhausting, like I was living a double life. I’m grateful, however, because by going through this process, I learned how to perform more authentically as myself. 

It was a tough pivot, but at one point I decided to cut the act and start presenting myself more authentically on my platforms. This didn’t mean I destroyed everything my false persona had built. In Yoga, our teachers will often say “Take what serves you, leave the rest.” This was the approach I took to recreating my digital persona into something truly authentic. 

For instance, I honestly love conspiracy theories: they’re endlessly fascinating from a psychological and narrative point of view. Plus, by that point, the Big Riff industry had become an important part of Merlock Lore. My community members would reference it without prompting, and it resonated with other creators who wanted desperately to grow their brand but felt stuck. 

Likewise, “z0inked” was a term that had become mutually inclusive with the brand I built, but I’d also worked towards creating a positive connotation. Getting z0inked wasn’t about being a lazy stoner, it was about being creative, based, and motivated. Even folks who don’t smoke marijuana began using the term because it fit a particular lifestyle and world view.

However, I stopped pretending to be constantly blazed out of my mind (though, of course, it wasn’t always a performance) and stopped talking in a ridiculous stoner voice. I also shifted my focus to start talking more about my craft as a musician, about bands that influenced me, and focusing more on. There was a brief period of transition, but I gradually found my audience was more engaged.  

Why? Because social media is built around socializing — and we can’t socialize with fictitious characters. Sure, we can get over-invested and over-identify with characters (ie: I still over-identify with Brandon Lee in The Crow), but we cannot, on a personal level, connect with them. This is why your digital persona needs to be authentic; because otherwise, your audience is building a connection with someone who doesn’t exist. And that, you might say, is chopped liver.

Partial Recall: An Overly Philosophical, but Short, Memoir about Music Videos

Growing up in the late 90s and early aughts, music videos were such an important part of my life. I would spend whole days in my summer vacation watching Fuse and MTV2, soaking up as much as I could. It wasn’t just the music that captivated me, but the entire visual aesthetic that bands would create to represent their music. It was the storytelling, the creation of a total, pure artistic expression. Somewhere in that young mind, I knew or was in the process of knowing, that I would create music videos one day.

It would be a long time before I did and it would be in a less-than-rockstar fashion. I was working for a furniture company as their creative lead and we thought it would be an interesting approach to content creation. What kind of furniture store made music videos, after all?

So, I wrote a kind of David Berman-esque song — deadpan vocals, lazy chord progression, catchy hook — about a furniture salesman not being able to sell furniture in the beginnings of the pandemic. I threw together a simple drum-loop and poppy bass line. We had a jingle in the course of an afternoon.

I didn’t really know what all went into a music video outside of what looked cool, but I had. team of creative powerhouses. One of our marketing team members had a pretty sweet camera and had done a few videos in Hawaii. Another had an intimidating amount of knowledge about video production (and was great at bringing my lofty, high-production ideas down to earth).

We took a day to gather as much materials as possible shooting in and around the furniture store. It took all day in the blistering sun, but eventually we were able to call it a wrap. I looked forward to seeing how our team member would pull together a final edit with all the rad footage we’d spent the day creating.

But, as fate would have it, he wasn’t very good at editing. His footage was super dope, but for whatever reason — whether lack of drive or vision — he faltered at a crucial step. This left the the project in my hands. A frustrating position, certainly, but I knew the basics of video editing. I ended up calling one of my old fraternity brothers to walk me through the basics of Adobe Premiere and he gave me a rough path to work through.

Often, challenges like these teach us what we’re capable of and can give us a new direction. At that point, I hadn’t even picked up a camera, and I wouldn’t for about year. It would be another year or so after picking up a camera that I started to play with the idea of making videos. In the last year or so, I’ve made tons of video content for clients, my friends, my students, and my bands — it’s a major part of my personal, creative, and professional life.

Recently — like earlier this week — I directed, performed in, and will be editing a music video for an upcoming single for my band Merlock. Initially, this article was supposed to be about how much I’d learned about video production in the last year or so — but I realized, as I wrote, that this project was an inevitability in my life. Not the culmination of year’s hard work learning how to use a camera or how to light a scene or how to use Davinci Resolve, but rather the culmination of a lifetime.

I often think on this kind of melodramatic Anne Rice quote from The Vampire Lestat. Discussing the eternity of a vampiric lifespan, Lestat says: “None of us really changes over time. We just become more full what we’ve always been.” Some might read this with a sense of hopelessness and despair; I read it with a sense of teleological assuredness. That is: everything we encounter is leading us somewhere we’ve always wanted to go — we just need to remember how to get there.