All Over It
an “Internet presence” in the ever-evolving digital universe
By Rick Marshall
Ellis has been on my mind lately. Sure, I just finished reading
Transmetropolitan, his unexpectedly successful comic-book
series about an outlaw journalist in future America, but that’s
not the only thing that has me thinking about the English
author, who claims to be kept standing “solely by Red Bull,
cigarettes and a cane.” The bug here is that I recently found
myself telling a coworker that, in addition to his knack for
Thompson-meets-Gibson storytelling, Ellis has a really remarkable
Now, I can’t remember ever using that term before. Even when
it first spilled out into conversation, I didn’t have a firm
grip on what an “Internet presence” was—but I knew Ellis had
one. Whether interacting with fans and friends on his message
board, musing on life, media and the pursuit of pubs to subscribers
on his Bad Signal mailing list or disseminating free
music from around the Internet via his Superburst Mixtapes,
Ellis has an uncanny ability to put the Internet’s constantly
evolving potential to good use.
CD turned up in the post yesterday, from a band I’ve never
heard of,” writes Ellis in one Bad Signal message.
“They had no idea about the comics stuff or anything else
I do. They only knew me from the Mixtapes.”
think that’s actually kind of great,” he continues.
And it’s precisely this sort of online proliferation of all
things Ellis that makes his “Internet presence” so impressive.
It’s simply not enough to have your own Web site anymore.
These days, I can’t go a week without someone asking me if
I’ve got an account on Friendster, Orkut, Tribe or any of
the other Web-based social networks—and don’t get me started
on trying to keep up with the myriad of instant- messaging
applications like AIM and Yahoo Messenger. I can share my
photos on Flickr, my bookmarks on Del.icio.us and my innermost
thoughts on LiveJournal, Blogger or any number of other blog
facilitators. With CafePress, the cartoon I scribbled last
night on a bar napkin can be printed on shirts, coffee mugs
and thong underwear by tomorrow afternoon, leaving me time
to upload my latest pop-rock masterpiece to MySpace.com.
And that’s only the tip of the techno-exhibitionist’s iceberg.
The number of people willing to have their daily movements
monitored by Web-savvy voyeurs is rising as the cost of Global
Positioning System units drops, while podcasts have brought
radio from a golden age of big-band sound to a digital age
of DIY audio. To top it all off, you can have the content
of your favorite Web sites delivered to your desktop whenever
it’s published, thanks to RSS feeds (short for Really Simple
Yet, despite the vast promotional potential of the Internet,
few people (or companies, for that matter) have been able
to juggle these tools effectively.
Politicians’ blogs, intended to garner votes from the Web-savvy
masses, often end up ridiculed or (if their subjects are lucky)
simply ignored by the critical culture of the Internet. (Note
to politicians with blogging aspirations: ’Net geeks love
to expose a phony, so make sure your facts are straight.)
Meanwhile, most major-label musicians and movie studios these
days tend to be more concerned with reducing their product’s
circulation on the Internet rather than nurturing it, and
new-movie sites rarely generate the word-of-mouth attention
that successful Web marketing depends upon.
So what’s the problem? Why is Ellis, a comic-book writer,
able to convert digital presence to real-world career fuel
when countless multimillionaires, rock stars and politicians
don’t seem to have a knack for it?
just willing to put more of themselves out there,” theorizes
a tech-savvy friend of mine. He’s the sort of guy who had
his own Web site before most of America was online—the kind
of guy who would write (on his blog, of course) that the Internet
“has been with me for half of my life, longer than my wife,
longer than anything I own. I discovered the internet before
I discovered any of my favorite bands or any of my favorite
When it comes to understanding the ebb and flow of Web trends,
he’s a real Yoda of sorts.
more of yourself you’re willing to put out there in that public
forum, the more of yourself you’re willing to expose to criticism,
the more people will feel that there’s something real behind
what they see [or hear] on the computer screen,” he suggests.
few people understand that sharing the details of your life
doesn’t necessarily have to mean sharing the details of your
love life,” he adds, referring to the vast number of personal
Web sites that never evolve beyond an online-diary existence.
Faced with all of the sensitivities one must consider during
the average real-world interaction, the digital world’s photo
galleries, online journals, video clips and sound bytes provide,
for many people, the most complete opportunity for self-expression.
And just like the parental mantra on developing real-world
friendships, creating a social circle on the Internet tends
to follow the same guidelines: Be patient and people will
like you once they get to really know you.
Of course, that’s not to say that moving your private joys
(and sadness) to a public forum doesn’t have its drawbacks.
While the problems associated with having your Internet life
bleed into your professional life made national headlines
for James Guckert (aka “Jeff Gannon” of the White House press
corps and “Bulldog” of male-escort Internet sites), the ramifications
of blurring these boundaries should provide food for thought
for aspiring Internet personalities.
For instance, Xerox temp Michael Hanscom lost his job in October
2003 after posting snapshots on his Web site of Apple computers
being unloaded for use at the Microsoft campus in Washington,
while a Delta Airlines flight attendant lost her job last
Fall when she posted a picture of herself in uniform on the
In many ways, successful self-promotion on the Internet has
become the sort of all-or-nothing gamble that would make any
cardsharp proud. While a recent guide to blogging put out
by digital-rights watchdog group Electronic Frontier Foundation
stresses anonymity as the only surefire way to stay on the
right side of the law, creating your own digital subculture—and
legion of fans—often requires the exact opposite: maximum
Yet, maybe it’s in the balancing of these two qualities, anonymity
and exposure, that a successful Internet presence is born.
While a comic-book writer might have less to worry about than
an elected official or journalist when on- and off-line worlds
merge, one can’t help but admire the way Ellis and so many
others keep themselves on your mind by keeping themselves
on your computer screen. In fact, when it comes to developing
an Internet presence, the old adage might be just as—if not
more—applicable online as it is in the real world: What you
get out of the Web simply depends on how much you’re willing
to put in.