Have you ever googled what an iceberg looks like underwater? You will be treated to a mesmerizing scroll of weird, icy protrusions — enormous and yet strangely invisible in that all you can see from above are their perfect, gleaming peaks. The images are an apt metaphor for the complexities of identity in the digital age, wherein small and polished fractions of our gargantuan, chaotic human selves are designated for public consumption.

The more I write about myself online or share about myself on social media, the starker the contrast between peak and iceberg becomes. My internet self is funny, articulate and outgoing; my real self is self-deprecating, a bit awkward and shy unless I feel totally comfortable. My internet self prioritizes aesthetic over utilitarian function; my real self loves being warm and comfortable. My internet self is eager to insert an opinion; my real self wants to hear what everyone else thinks first. My internet self is buoyant and extroverted; my real self is a ball of introverted angst. My internet self knows how to make friends (easily!); my real self wants you to make the first move (please?). My internet self is a series of carefully selected two-dimensional words and images; my real self lives inside a body even when she’d rather not and unbuttons her jeans after lunch and flushes unfiltered pink at the first sign of feeling insecure and sometimes says the wrong thing or doesn’t say anything at all even when she should.

Is it surprising that sometimes I prefer the former? That I wish I could detach my iceberg peak from its unwieldy base and drift along, unencumbered by the ambiguity of being a flesh-and-blood person in the world?

The internet is an incredibly effective mechanism for broadcasting a compartmentalized version of yourself, one that fits neatly into a square image and corresponding caption, which is why it’s easy to be better online than off. Online, I have the freedom to select what I want to say and how I want to say it, and if I change my mind, I can usually go back and edit it or delete it altogether. Offline, I’m just me, and sometimes that feels like too much or not enough. It rarely feels just right.

As a writer, the freedom to select what I want to say and how I want to say it is particularly appealing because I feel more at ease crafting my identity through text than I do through speech. I often talk about things in my writing that I would be uncomfortable talking about in person — things like body image and social anxiety, which occupy enormous expanses in the underwater geography of my whole self. Writing gives me time and space to break off pieces of those vulnerabilities, to scrub off the ugliest shame barnacles and nudge the “okay” bits to the surface for air.

Some barnacles are too gnarly to write my way through just yet, and that’s fine, but my awareness of what I haven’t said can be difficult to reconcile with what I have. The discrepancy isn’t always apparent, but every now and then, on bad self-esteem days, it feels cavernous.

Forgiving that gap is a work in progress. I try to appreciate that even though my internet self and my real self might assume different shapes or poke out in different directions, they’re still carved from the same mountain of ice. The underbelly of that mountain may be studded with a colony of my worst hang-ups, but it’s also my greatest source of empathy as a result. Without that, I wouldn’t even float in the first place.

Photo by Louisiana Mei Gelpi; collage by Edith Young.

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  • Andrea

    ¨ The images are an apt metaphor for the complexities of identity in the digital age, wherein small and polished fractions of our gargantuan, chaotic human selves are designated for public consumption.¨ THISS! Thanks for this piece Harling, I think about how insane it is that we know have the ability two separate ourselves and be 2 people at the same time and how exhausting it can be, and more so WHY we do it. Is it expectations, is it a way of escaping, etc. I consider my internet persona to be just a tad more flamboyant, I love it though because I feel that I can be free to share my thoughts and feelings that I probably wouldn’t feel comfortable saying IRL to people or friends.

  • Emily Crittenden

    Bless you and your beautifully messy iceberg. Thanks for this image and your deep dive with vulnerability. I think this article is such a powerful antidote to the turmoil that comes from wishing we were neater, more crisp and definable versions of ourselves. You’re healing people with your willingness to write about it.

    • Harling Ross

      “the turmoil that comes from wishing we were neater, more crisp and definable versions of ourselves” — yes! you’ve articulated this feeling so well. thanks so, so much for your comment Emily

      • Kristi Ellis

        I totally agree with Emily that you are healing people with essays like this! The work that you all do at Man Repeller is so meaningful because through your vulnerability, you give people permission to be themselves…the cool internet version and the real life messy version. Thank you for this!

  • As I read through this I kept finding PERFECTLY ARTICULATED sentences I needed to share, each one more relatable than the last, but THEN I got to the last two, which are my favorite of all:

    “The underbelly of that mountain may be studded with a colony of my worst hang-ups, but it’s also my greatest source of empathy as a result. Without that, I wouldn’t even float in the first place.”

    How you and Haley always write exactly what I’m feeling in exactly the moment I read it is beyond me. Ty for this.

    • Harling Ross

      i love when that happens !

  • CeeEm

    “my real self loves being warm and comfortable”
    “my real self wants to hear what everyone else thinks first”
    “my real self is a ball of introverted angst”

    ^Harling, your real self actually sounds warm, beautifully complex, empathetic, a little messy — and like someone I’d like to know!

    • Harling Ross

      what a wonderful way of seeing it and putting it. thanks so much, CeeEm.

  • Kate

    Harling – I’ve never related more to a piece of writing in my whole entire life. It’s so interesting because, I could *never* properly put my real self into words like you have here. Reading this I felt like you were inside my MIND! I literally took notes. I’m so happy you have your internet self/presence – I think it’s the most incredible outlet. I’ve been having a really tough time working through my own anxiety issues, but it’s comforting to know that someone else out there is having the same thoughts and feelings as me. Also, now I feel like I can finally articulate how I feel inside!!!!!!! Thank you, thank you.

    • Harling Ross

      ahhh thank YOU kate for this comment. the comfort is very, very much mutual

  • Daisy

    “Shame barnacles”
    I feel like those were the only two words I needed to read today. Now my day is complete. 😁

    • Harling Ross

      Lol for some reason my inner pirate really came out while writing this

  • Alex R Florence

    Lovely. I am super introverted and find similar self detachment and “freedom” from my anxieties when I use my internet persona. But in all honesty, as I get older, I am happy being introverted – I am super creative when I’m with myself. Two parts of a whole. Thanks!

  • Samantha Serbus

    Oh wow. This was so beautiful! I think every. single. person. feels this way. It rung true with me at least. It’s funny how social media simultaneously connects & pushes us apart. When I see those “perfect” girls on Instagram, I think she’s cool and I would love to be her but I ultimately feel empty cause she’s not real. She’s a fraction of a real person with a lot of similar issues as me. When it’s put in that perspective, I instantly feel less alone and cut myself some slack. But that’s a conscious effort I have to make and I don’t always remember. I slip into the twisted reality that is social media. And I think it’s cool when people expose their flaws, but that takes so much courage and vulnerability. I can hardly do that with my boyfriend, let alone a bunch of strangers. Wtf. Social media is kinda like high school, but anyone can be the “cool kid” and the school is the fuckin’ WORLD! Eeek.

  • Amelia Diamond

    harling i love this entire thing. it’s poetic and real and beautiful and i want to print it out!

    • Harling Ross

      do people know you’re a literal diamond?

  • Nicola V

    Harling this writing is amazing, I felt the truth of it as I read. I love the iceberg image. Thank you!

    • Harling Ross

      #icebergs4life

  • Haley Nahman

    Love this so much Harls. Also, I see all these sides of you IRL all the time (your so-called internet parts included!) and find them all equally lovable and charming.

    • Harling Ross

      thank G for you haley nahman (—> something i say to myself frequently)

  • Jennifer

    Well, this is perfection. Thank you for sharing Harling!

  • Damn, mothing left for me to say … this post and the comments are the best thing to read on a Friday evening! Thank you! ❤

  • Bella Zaydenberg

    As another writer on the internet that’s probably way funnier/cooler online than IRL, I want to say I feel you, girl! Thanks so much for this, Harling — sorely needed.

  • Beeelu

    You just put my life into words. can we be friends?

    • Harling Ross

      we sure can

  • Agnes

    This reminds me of the advent of email, and the time in 1997 when I started an email correspondence with a new friend I’d only met a few times. By email, she was SO funny, outgoing, etc. and I thought I was getting to know her better. I was charmed. I invited her to come stay with me abroad, where I’d moved. When she got there, she was totally quiet and introverted and refused to leave the flat to even have a coffee down the street. Her mom turned out to be agoraphobic and I think she herself probably had some of these anxieties. So much cognitive dissonance for me. Ergo, I have never put any stock whatsoever into internet peeps’ personalities. You never know until you meet someone what they’re really like, and even then it takes a lot of time. I can appreciate your awesome writing and sharp insights, Harling, but I would never assume to KNOW the beautiful person I’m assuming you are 🙂

  • “My internet self is buoyant and extroverted; my real self is a ball of introverted angst.” <—– it me (+ social anxiety)

  • Melanie

    “Offline, I’m just me, and sometimes that feels like too much or not enough. It rarely feels just right.” Harling, I really really really needed to hear this today, and I’m happy I’m not the only one!

  • melanie knox

    thank you so much for writing this.

    • Harling Ross

      thank YOU for this comment, melanie

  • Kat

    I have to agree with everyone else saying they feel the same way! Does anyone else love the opportunity to meet completely new people who don’t know anything about you, as it gives you the opportunity to present the best version of yourself, and do it “right” this time?! Then it inevitably “goes wrong” as you laugh too loud or say something silly and your super cool persona becomes see-through… just me???

    • Definitely not just you! I moved from the UK to NYC a couple of years ago, where I knew absolutely no one. 0 people. While that was totally scary, I was also excited to ‘do it right’ and make a first impression as someone much cooler and more mature than the ‘me’ that everyone at home knew… of course, that didn’t last long! I quickly realised that regardless of geography, I’m pretty much the same old me. On the plus side, I’m also learning that that’s actually an okay thing to be 🙂

    • Yeah …

  • nms124

    I never comment on these type of things but this is honestly so true. thanks so sharing and know that a ton of us feel the exact same way. Also by the way the real you seems cool AF.

    • Harling Ross

      <3 <3 <3

  • Sophie Roane

    I love when y’all write about real feelings.

    • Harling Ross

      me 2

  • stunningly written and so authentic, i bookmarked this beautiful article as a reminder for my future self. thank you for this, harling! xoxo

    • Harling Ross

      <3

  • Hil

    Whoa this was so interesting to read because I feel the opposite. My social media accounts are pretty boring and don’t feel like extensions of myself at all. I feel super uncomfortable with people making assumptions about me from my instagram or Facebook or twitter (or this comment). Sure I’m awkward but also I’m a lot more fun and charming in person haha

    • Hil

      (Oh and even though I believe your feelings, I don’t really believe you’re better on the internet)

      • Harling Ross

        <3

    • I feel this way, too. Normally when I’m doing/ eating something exciting, I don’t stop to take photos or post. My Instagram is basically just plants in weird light when I’m bored or have copious time to craft a caption. None of my world travels nor wittiest remarks ever make it online!

      That said, I do understand the phenomenon of a perfectly curated feed, and I love the imagery you’ve presented here, Harling!

    • M Rae

      honestly manrepeller disqus gets the MOST social media activity from me out of any platform period…im fine with that!!!

  • Abby Pierce

    Thank you for this. The comparison/contrast you listed in the second paragraph is scary accurate of how I feel when I blog versus real life. This helped!!

  • Rita

    By coincidence today I have enabled my Instagram account; on the one hand to think whether what I share corresponds to what I am and also to be aware of the amount of time I spend on Internet when I could be reading, having real-human conversations or just raising my face of the phone and enjoying the real world.
    Just and experiment but really into looking into myself and into my own iceberg: thanks for this article!

  • Suzan

    What beautiful musings! And lovely comments!
    For me too it is (or was) very recognizable what you’ve written down and because of that it was such a relief to delete my FB account years ago. Especially because my internet persona was inching in on my RL life in the sense that I would experience things or photograph things and at the same time was thinking how I would word/caption it in a witty way for later when I’d get home and could put it on FB (pre-smartphone/app era), of course totally taking me out of the moment ridiculously. It was a self-created hostage, ugh.

    Since your work platform is digital the solution of course is not to delete it, but I can imagine it might be such a relief for your to have this article published as a sort of “confession”. Because it does tie both those persona’s together wonderfully. Of course one is always harder on oneself as well, as underlined by the lovely comments of your colleagues who know both your on- and off-line persona!

  • Christina Lagoni

    This reminds me of one of me favourite poems; We Are Many by Pablo Neruda.
    “Geography of self”. Thanks for sharing!

    • Harling Ross

      brb reading now

  • Dymond Moore

    Was thinking about this today. It sucks majorly to feel like I’ve lost part of myself to my internet persona. The only solution I can think of it to disconnect completely but it feels so intertwined with my life every single day.

  • Marina Corrêa de Moraes

    <3

  • Rayane Abou Jaoude

    This is beautiful.

  • Honor Jane

    I never normally comment on posts, but I felt compelled to after reading this beautifully written article. I always love it when I see an article by you pop up on my feed, but this was just so stunningly articulate, honest and sums up many people feel online. I love your online persona, but your real self sounds just as brilliant, and someone I would want to hang out with!

    Honor xxx

    • Harling Ross

      i’m so glad you did (comment). Thank you, Honor !

  • ByeBeckz

    Your hair looks like literal rays of sunshine! So beautiful!

  • Delaney

    I can relate so much. I come of better through text because I can shape my attitude more deliberately and because my face is not there to give the person any indication of what mood I am actually in. A persons social media presence really doesn’t say much about what they are but what they want to be, I think. Thank you for this piece!

  • Berry Malinowska

    Couldn’t agree more with what you said! In a way I feel we would have a lot in common, as I encounter 90% of these things when looking at my online and offline self. I guess it’s just work in progress to unify both selfs!

  • Jay

    Ouff.

    Without going to deep into those things…

    Social media is the worst. I mean, no, of course I love it. Instead of the news in the morning, I check Insta. And love it. Goes really well with coffee. But we all know that, do we?

    But then…

    Am I entirely honest on my Insta?

    I tried. Like used #realtalk maybe twice (by the way: I decluttered my two years of Insta recently, and FB is my next project, but I just never ever am on FB). So there is some honesty. Though the pics are about drinks with the girls…

    So no, I did not try.

    And that anxious, insecure, weird, struggling, inbetween, not knowing what is right or wrong, not a Girlboss at all girl is thus often hiding behind weights lifted at the gym, runs taken in the park, achievements at work or just that great outfit or inspirational quote.

    Is that wrong? totally.

    Is that human? totally.

    Will I change?!

    Honestly…

    I dont know.

    Cause #realshit is heavy

  • Rosemary

    Harling this is the best article you’ve ever written. This fellow ball of introverted angst empathizes sm and would probably appreciate your real life self a whole lot

    • Harling Ross

      <3 <3 <3 x 1,000

  • Gigi

    I think as writers we are absolutely bisected into two selves. I’ve been trying to accept it, & accept my seemingly two sides as just two different lights that sometimes shine brighter & burn deeper for one than the other. On the internet, too, I have to be careful, because being a perfectionist means I want to control what other people see in me. I want to control how I am seen & imbibed. But I can’t ever control that! It’s strange to want to be so raw & honest as a writer, to want to put our guts on a plate & serve it to everyone we’ve never met, with a fleeting sense of confidence in our likelihood of being received well & liked, despite also not wanting anyone to know us as we are. But sometimes, too, I think it’s not even necessarily about my being insecure of my badness, but not wanting to be seen. Thanks for such a great meditation on the self! <3

    • Harling Ross

      wowowowow. i just screenshotted this. so true.

  • Meghan

    totally tearing up– “Offline, I’m just me, and sometimes that feels like too much or not enough. It rarely feels just right.” This really hits home and it’s such a relief to hear that people feel the same way!! Thank you for this beautiful piece!

    • Harling Ross

      <3

  • Anum Bashir

    This was really nice to read, and also highly relatable. Perhaps because the digital space is a buffer that only allows the uninhibited/ more relaxed versions of ourselves to permeate through.
    I sometimes wonder if the internet, social media, text messaging, etc. has made us poorer one-on-one communicators? I personally am so much more self-conscious in a face-to-face situation.
    Regardless, you’re wonderful though, Harling.

    • Harling Ross

      it’s def a buffer !! (for me at least)

  • Pandora Sykes

    this is really beautiful written

    • Harling Ross

      thank you so much, Pandora. means a lot!

  • Jade

    I think the Internet self often is your real self. People express thoughts and feelings online that they might not feel comfortable sharing in person, due to shyness, social anxiety, etc. Some people are more fully themselves online than they are in real life.

  • Alex Rosenbaum

    I almost choked when I saw this article, especially the image attached up top!

    Of course we are all feeling this way! I am a senior studying fashion design and my senior collection thesis is based around the relationship (love hate as it might be) and the anxieties I have with social media and our digital selves. Utilizing print design with imagery of censored skin, images that craft a “perfect” feed on Instagram and the icons that shoot serotonin to our brains from 1 like, I too am trying to articulate how I cope with social media and the internet today.

    I can only hope that my imagery will evoke the same message as your writing. You write as if you could read my mind. Different mediums, but such a complex message to be explored!

  • Anastasiya Mozgovaya

    Harling, thank you so much for writing and sharing this <3
    I can relate so damn much, and this is a subject that I think about a lot.
    No matter what, we would obviously not want to not even float, so cheers to our combos!

  • I could not agree more Harling! I have a wellness blog where I try to talk about mental health and my experiences with anxiety and sometimes if I’m really not feeling great I just don’t want to talk about it, But then that feels dishonest…surely thats the whole point of my blog? There’s also a brilliant piece on the same thing by Laura Jane Williamson (Superlatively LJ) which really rang true with this as well. Why do we have to share everything? Who do we feel we owe it to? http://www.superlativelyrude.com/2017/10/how-to-eat-elephant.html
    Amazing piece, really got me thinking (as always!), so thank you!
    x

  • Mary

    Thank you for this, Harling. As someone who feels anxious about ambiguity, I find the specific, curated, and two-dimensional nature of internet-identities comforting as well. Also, you made me rethink the word “ambiguity” entirely. Yay vocab!

    And props to the art team for creating a cool/fitting feature image that is not an iceberg.