Would the Real Holly Dawson Please Stand Up?

May 9th, 2013 | Holly Dawson | 19 Comments


Have you ever had that dream, where you walk into a room full of people and realize with horror it contains everyone you have ever known?

All the jostling, incongruous parts of your life flash before you, as your brain speeds through the consequences of this squeamish event – the secrets, deceptions, indiscretions, and embarrassments that will be exposed.

Image: DavidDennisPhotos.com via Flickr, CC 2.0

But then you wake up.

That room, however, does exist. It’s called the Internet.

William James best described social interaction when he spoke of the six ‘people’ that are present when you meet someone: each person as they see themselves, each person as the other sees them, and each person as they really are.

Ask yourself – which of these six characters do you tend to favor?

For me, it was always how the other person saw me. I tailored my persona for each individual. As a freelancer, I did many different jobs and had many different interests, involving a disparate range of people. A chameleon strategy seemed to bring the most success.

The idea of bringing such diverse individuals together terrified me.

“Holly’s an editor” – “She works for charities?” – “No, she writes fiction…”

Even my class background was mercurial.

The part of me that went to a posh school, a top university, and enjoyed the in-laws’ holiday home gave me a certain cultural capital. The other side, that grew up on benefits, got lucky with scholarships, and roughed it in Hackney, made me comfortable with a different demographic. My voice changed with company. One set of friends only saw me in 1930’s clothes.

As a result, I have always preferred one-to-one relationships than a big gang. The stress associated with multiplying James’ six characters got in the way of cultivating authentic connections. James, writing now, would have to scale up his hypothesis to 2.4 billion and six.

The web terrified me: diminished control, a diverse audience, conflicting personas. My Facebook presence was cursory and pseudonymous.  My profile picture was Zelda Fitzgerald. When I got a new job, I un-followed all the fiction-world people from my Twitter, re-launching it just for work.

Further issues came when that new job involved blogger outreach. I was trying to get articles placed that were of a high journalistic quality, but nonetheless were written to promote clients.

I tried to be who the bloggers wanted me to be. I didn’t use my work email, in case the ‘SEO’ bit deterred them. I said I was a freelance writer working with ethical companies (true), but I worried they’d find other elements of my freelance work incongruous.

You are mercurial. The Internet is not. You are molten lava, gushing up ideas and interactions, which then spread and solidify, forming layers of forever rock. It’s the old dead rock of past explosions that cools the lava, thwarting its flow and taming its vitality.

The web invites everyone you have ever known – and never known – to a Museum Of You.

The fear goes when you realize everyone is the same. We all have pasts. We all have photos we regret. We all have hobbies that would surprise you, and friends you wouldn’t like. We have all been on the Internet a while. It’s time we started to accept ourselves, and each other, as whole people.

If the multi-faceted persona worries you, you have options:

  • Establish a complex system of personas with different names, photos, and emails
  • Eradicate every sniff of you from every site and network, re-launching a false squeaky-clean ‘you’
  • Live in a cave


  • Accept you are a whole person, made up of different facets, with diverse interests
  • Accept you are human; you have made errors; you do not always look good in photographs; you have made a few tipsy posts and ranted on tweets; some of your interests conflict
  • Accept you are blessed to know a wide range of people; how they interact with each other is not your responsibility; you cannot control what they say about you
  • Reduce the gap between your real self and online self – as Shonali warned, one day they will collide!

Why give your online self such a hard time? If your real self had to look like a model, say only intelligent things, interact solely with people it wanted to make money from, and had no interests outside work, you would be bored, exhausted, and pretty much friend-less.

So now I am getting real and being myself.

My Twitter profile describes my different roles; my Facebook is my real name; I am on LinkedIn and Google+. And I am a convert, no – addict. New friends have been made, old friendships rekindled. Business is great. I am thriving on making connections that are genuine, nurturing, surprising, and fulfilling.

Whether I know you or not, I want you in the room. You’ll get some digital communications stuff, some mental health and women’s empowerment stuff, some fiction stuff, and the ‘fluff’ : learning to drive, allotment progress, my latest ill-fated craft project.

You won’t like it all. Pick the stuff that sparks your interest and connect with me. Pick the stuff that you know your novelist friend would like and connect them with me. Pick the stuff you know your business followers would like and use it to connect to them.

That’s real communication.

Holly Dawson

Holly Dawson

Editorial Director at Ethical SEO
Holly Dawson is editorial director of Ethical SEO. Based in the heart of the English countryside, between London and Brighton, she spends her days supporting good people to do interesting things online and thrive in the connection economy. She enjoys exploring the parallels between the brain, human behavior, and the digital world, and she vastly over-uses the word 'relationship'. Her work is driven by, as Godin says, “creating ideas that spread, and connecting the disconnected” (although her main goal at the moment is to stop endlessly quoting Seth Godin).
Holly Dawson
Holly Dawson
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"A Little Birdie Told Me" could fly into your inbox just once a month. It's Shonali-as-seen-nowhere-else. What're you waiting for?

Shonali moderator

This is such a great post, Holly, and something I think we all struggle with at some point. I think there are different aspects of our personalities that may dominate, depending on the circumstances, but basically they all live in the same person. How exhausting it would be to maintain several different - completely different - personas. I know that would send me off the deep edge. 

This is also why I find it difficult to relate when people say they keep their personal and professional personas "completely separate"... I think they may think they're doing that, but in reality, they are just fooling themselves.

Great post!

Latest blog post: No More Apologies


Very refreshing, Holly, and mirroring much of what I "preach" both to my students and to folks who attend sessions I present on cultivating an online presence. I refer to it as "getting comfortable in your own skin." Once you achieve that, your online presence will represent the real you...all sides...all "shapes." Thanks for validating my thoughts!


Yes, I had that dream too, but I was in a casket...:). However, most of everybody I knew did show up. 

I totally agree with the different personas as I act different around my buddies than I do my family (wife) and my customers. Since I'm so closely tied socially to my corporation www.lanierupshaw.com I do have to be somewhat conservative with my online presence to 'protect' the corporation. However, and @Shonali has met me in person and would probably say I'm pretty consistent and there are no Jekyll  & Hydes lurking in there. 

I'm comfortable with who I am, I don't need to try and be someone else; it's hard enough to be me...:). 

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

Very interesting story @Holly Dawson I tried keeping Facebook my pre-social media friends vs anyone for work. That faied and I stopped posting and sharing the real me. You have to get to know me to learn the real me. My twitter is tame and very few pre-social media friends. And yes all my old classmates wanted to connect. And I did. And for each we would chat for a day or five then boom...gone back to my life today. Kind of weird. I think if my work didn't bleed into Facebook I might of kept many of those connections because some are really cool people. But now I go there just to chat in a private marketing group and rarely anything else. As my world got forced open I found myself actually revealing less and less about my life online. and I don't use my real name on Facebook btw but I do now for Twitter LOL.

Holly Dawson
Holly Dawson

Gosh, thank you very much. I am pleased you enjoyed it. How do you negotiate your different 'selves' ?Really interested to hear other people's experiences...


Holly, this is great and something so many people seem to struggle with. Thank you for sharing your perspective along with your personal experience. 

PS - you don't need to quote Godin, the good part here is straight from you.

Holly Dawson
Holly Dawson

@Shonali Thanks, Shonali! It has been really interesting hearing people's responses to this topic, both here and offline. I think I have partly realised that my new position of professional and personal alignment is quite a privilege - one that is not encouraged by many employers and that is a very real source of concern for a lot of my friends (especially the early Facebook generation). But there are consequences of maintaining a split, psychologically (as you point out) and also , I think, professionally. 

I have decided to spend the next 6 months documenting what evolves as a result of my new open-ness online to try and set some sort of KPIs for being yourself. Let's see what happens!

Holly Dawson
Holly Dawson

@KirkHazlett Thanks Kirk. "Getting comfortable in your own skin" is a great way of putting it. I would love to know what your students think about that. Are they part of the generation who have grown up with social media, and are more likely to have their past tattooed al over the internet? I was talking to some people in their 20s about this and being your whole, consistent self seemed to pose much more of a problem for them, and they had a real fear of their employees  seeing partying pictures etc on the Facebook profiles. Perhaps I am writing from a position of luxury, as my teenage years weren't recorded on a camera phone and Facebook only emerged the year I left university...

Holly Dawson
Holly Dawson

@bdorman264 Good point! That's how I was starting to feel - it was hard enough to be the offline me, let alone perform this series of other online roles as well. Exhausting and demotivating! And funnily enough, sorting out who I am online has really helped the cementing of my real-life identity, too. I have more confidence to be multi-faceted and - shock horror - I am inviting everyone I know to a party next month for the first time!

Holly Dawson
Holly Dawson

@Howie Goldfarb That's really interesting, Howie. Are you at all tempted to re-launch the Howie 2.0 and open up all your online selves? I wonder what's the worst that might happen...
Your word 'tame' really stuck out for me and has given me food for thought. Maybe this process of self-transparency has been good for me because I don't have anything 'wild' going on, and there's nothing too controversial about baking, birdspotting, crafting, reading, and having the odd politicised rant. And I am lucky that the company I work for, Ethical SEO, really celebrates the  whole person and encourages individualism. 
I guess one question could be: what would you do if you didn't have to work?

Shonali moderator

@Holly Dawson Oh, that sounds interesting... are you going to do it online, like on a blog or something? And I'm intrigued by your setting out KPIs for "being yourself"... what are some examples? I've never thought of KPIs for that!

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

@Holly Dawson  I actually moved from the big city (17 years in Los Angeles) and now live in a small Vermont ski resort town of 1600 people. No traffic lights or smog. Walk out my door and wilderness stretches over a big mountain range. I do post lots of photos from here on twitter but almost none on Facebook. So going through 2.0 now offline.

But while my life is fairly tame now in the past all my social life was music/art counterculture. So being in the business world best not to promote that and let my work stand for itself. 

As for bird spotting I was attacked by an Osprey guarding her nest on a short hike up to the local mountain beaver pond. I tweeted I was being chased by a Falcon even asked my father in law who said we don't have them here. Upon googling and seeing it was not a falcon I learned it was an osprey. I felt like prey it was very unsettling!

Holly Dawson
Holly Dawson

@Shonali  Well, it will be a bit of an experiment, but I figure there are several straight forward quantitative indicators (follower numbers and other social media stats), as well as consequential calibrators, such as new business gained through relationships built online.

The less tangible outcome is about my 'happiness' or 'identity alignment', but I figure one way of measuring that is recording how long I spend on social media channels. It was definitely an activity I used to spend the bare minimum amount of time doing, as I wasn't comfortable hanging out on Facebook or Twitter, but that has changed dramatically now. 

I hadn't thought about a blog, but maybe that is a good idea...


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