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How Honest Is Your Online Persona?

05/29/2013 12:19 EDT | Updated 07/29/2013 05:12 EDT
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Last week, the popular online dating site, Plenty of Fish, announced new features to try to weed out fake profiles. Whether you're for or against the gesture, it's difficult to think of the update as anything but that -- a gesture. Maybe back in the jazz age the Jay Gatsbys of the world required vast fortunes, keen wits, and a twinkling eye to sustain their romantic illusions; today all it seems to take is a laptop. The Internet has democratized self re-invention -- a good, or at least decent, or at least not completely repellent online presence is something almost anyone can throw together.

We have become a society immersed in mass habitual tinkering in the gap between who we are and who we present ourselves to be, always at work on our personal "brand." And yet, as much as the Internet has provided a curtain for every would be Wizard-of-Oz to hide behind, the stronger trend, in a nicely dialectical development, has arguably been towards increasing exposure, bringing with it a now very familiar debate on the definition, domain and value of privacy.

Of course, exposure doesn't necessarily mean honest exposure, but the idealist argument out of Silicon Valley has been to promote technological advances as a means of enhancing real-time communication, undiluted and unpolluted by the meddling powers that be. The Internet lets us put ourselves out into the world and it lets us access the world out there immediately and uncensored. Some people may want to flood that pure pathway with lies, but, for those who want honesty, here is a tool to facilitate that honesty in greater measure than ever previously conceived. And for those who most fully embrace this position, increased honest recording and sharing of our lives should only be considered a good thing.

For example, in a New York Times article on Google Glass, a gadget that controversially allows users to take photos literally with a blink of the eye, reporter David Streitfeld writes:

"Like many Silicon Valley companies, Google takes the attitude that people should have nothing to hide from intrusive technology. 'If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place,' said Eric Schmidt, then Google's chief executive, in 2009."

As if to not tell the whole truth, upfront and to everyone, is to lie. As if shame is the only thing that ever complicates the golden rule of full disclosure.

A few years ago, I worked on the crew of a recently released web series. The dark comedic series follows a group of friends who operate a very unusual matchmaking service called, like the series itself, STRIKE ANYWHERE MATCHES. At the series start, Strike Anywhere Matches is a normal dating website, "enabling" lies with the best of them, until this provokes an existential crisis in Jake (Shealtiel Weinberg), CEO of Strike, serial dater, and chronic liar himself. So, when technical difficulties cause the website to be down for a day, Jake idealistically moves the company offline. It turns out, however, even in person "nobody volunteers the truth," and so Jake turns to more extreme methods.

Using tactics normally reserved for interrogating criminal suspects, Strike's clients are coerced into revealing the full and ugly truth about themselves and their romantic aspirations. From real salary, weight, height, and age to bad habits, bad hygiene, prejudices, and quirks, everything is exposed -- the idea being that the lies we commonly use to get what, or who, we want, more often get us caught in unsustainable and disappointing fantasies. Because the secret truth is that what we all really want is someone we can be our imperfect, sloppy selves with. We're just too scared to admit it...without a little intimidating push.

Though they disagree over medium, Jake and Schmidt basically believe the same thing: lies are bad and so truth is good. And who can't relate to Jake and co.'s desire to wring honesty out of their clients as if it's the only salvation available from an epidemic of loneliness? When lies are eroding the ground beneath you, what's left except to put your faith in truth? When it feels like lies are becoming the norm, how many of us wouldn't mind a little compelled disclosure, especially if it promises true love?

But if lies do indeed threaten to prevent any genuine trust between people -- which they, of course, do -- the opposite pole, the realm of the tell-all anecdote, is only an answer until it comes into contact with an actual human being, a human being, for example, like Lilah (Adriana Spizuoco). Lilah is a client at Strike Anywhere Matches who enters the series eight episodes in, just as the kinks in Jake's new strategy have been worked out and he's feeling pretty good about himself. Lilah challenges Jake, not because she is a liar, or a defender of lies, but because she challenges his basic assumption that there are truths and lies and nothing in between. And she does this with one simple question: "what's the litmus test for veracity?" Lilah isn't against telling the truth, she just doesn't always know what it is.

What are the truths you can really say about yourself? What do you know about yourself for certain? What do you believe, feel, do, without doubt, exception, evolution? Most of us don't have simple answers to these questions and probably would find that even when we attempt answers, we articulate them a little differently depending on who we're talking to. Context, timing, experience, assumptions and a whole host of other, some intangible, factors affect how well we understand each other, who we are in various settings and who, therefore, we want to confide in or relate to.

If Jake and Schmidt's idealism is misplaced it isn't so much because they naively believe that most people want to be honest and would be honest if put in a world where honesty was the easiest path. It's because their trust in openness shows that they think of identity as something static and universal, when, more often, the truths about us that really matter dry out into their opposite if not kept alive by uncertainty and exploration.

Instead of thinking about the value of privacy as either based on a fear of intrusion or stemming from insecurity, instead of thinking about honesty as full disclosure, maybe there's something we're leaving out. Perhaps Google Glass and similar technology will lessen the world's cache of shameful secrets. Or, perhaps, Plenty of Fish, and its ilk, will breed a much more successful race of modern Gatsbys. Either way, though, we risk reducing our identities to nothing more than what we expose, truth or lie. And, as Jake and his friends realize, we are each more than that. We are everything that we don't know about ourselves, that we learn about ourselves from, and through, our interactions with others, everything that we cannot reveal or invent, everything about ourselves that we have yet to be.

A new episode of STRIKE ANYWHERE MATCHES is available on YouTube every Thursday night, 10PM ET/7PM PT.

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