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I’m All Over It

Developing an “Internet presence” in the ever-evolving digital universe By Rick Marshall

 

Warren 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 “Internet presence.”

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.

“A 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.”

“I 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 Syndication).

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?

“They’re 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 authors.”

When it comes to understanding the ebb and flow of Web trends, he’s a real Yoda of sorts.

“The 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.

“Too 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 Internet.

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 exposure.

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.


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