It began, I believe, Friday afternoon, on a whim. Although I tend to the pedantic in my blogging, I can be taken by whimsy. Any of my Twitter followers can tell you how enamored I am of hashtag games.
The inciting event, such as it was, was spurred by the fact that I’ve been on Twitter for some three and half years now, and the same photo has been my identifier, my avatar, throughout that time. I thought I’d change things up a little, and so I swapped in a cartoon character. If, as I wrote in a tweet, a prestigious playwright like David Lindsay Abaire could have Barney Rubble as an avatar, I could have fun too. And that’s where I went wrong.
My first mistake was to choose a cartoon character who is not terribly well remembered by many, a minor supporting character on a now-cult TV show that debuted before I was born. That said, the rationale behind my selection would be immediately clear to those who know the show and indeed, messages of charmed approval were the first comments.
But the tone shifted. “When did you make the change,” came one inquiry, impartial, but not at all supportive. My follower count began to slide, albeit slightly. “That doesn’t look like you,” commented another. So after firing off some 100 tweets last night during the Olympic closing ceremony under my new persona, I awoke this morning and asked my followers their opinion. There were a handful who recognized the character, and made the connection (although my college roommate, a fellow trivia buff, didn’t get it). A few people said that without the old photo, they didn’t register that tweets were mine, because they were used to the old avatar. My comments wouldn’t be noticed when quickly scanning a feed.
So as quickly as I became I cartoon, I reverted to myself. There were a few farewells, but a rather passionate response from Robert Falls, artistic director of The Goodman Theatre, convinced me that reversion was the right thing to do. “Thank GOD you’re back!,” tweeted Bob. “Can’t explain why other image was disturbing – just didn’t match your Twitter voice. Seriously.”
And so my whimsical avatar, who was, incidentally, Sherman, the boy adopted by the dog Mr. Peabody on Jay Ward’s Rocky and His Friends (often referred to as The Bullwinkle Show) is banished from my tweets. Privately, I remain in possession of assorted Sherman memorabilia, as friends invariably enjoy giving me hats and plush dolls emblazoned with his image. I have that to amuse me.
Of course what had happened here was that, over the course of several years, I had established a brand on Twitter, and I had arbitrarily violated the expectations of that brand. The cartoon character didn’t represent the online persona I’d cultivated over time. Had I started with it, it may not have been an issue (although a cartoon is hardly the best persona for the range of theatrical content I curate daily). Since I don’t actually know most of my followers, nor they me, it was as if I’d had plastic surgery, badly, in order to enter witness protection.
So my inadvertent experiment this weekend turned in clear (albeit anecdotal) results in record time. Once you establish your personal brand in social media, stick with it. If you’re just playing around with friends, knock yourself out – use a funny avatar. But if you want to be heard, if you want to be recognized, pick an image and stick with it. If you’re an arts organization, don’t change your avatar show by show: stick with your company logo. If you want to be taken seriously, or use social media professionally, be yourself. And to thine own self be true, as some old guy once said, even in this brave new world of social media interaction.
In my case, I don’t think there’s been lasting damage, but if I’d gone on, there might have been. And unlike Mr. Peabody and Sherman, I don’t have a WABAC machine that would have allowed me to set things straight. And if you don’t get that last reference, look it up.