Last Week Tonight speaks to my soul.
This past November, rising webhosting costs and general frustration with the inefficient setup of my server in the age of Git and source control prompted me to take control of my digital destiny.
It took six excruciating months – blowing well past my New Year’s Eve goal – but eventually I successfully pushed all of my previously Wordpress-based projects to a static setup on Github Pages.
Nothing highlights how many people don’t see your websites than taking them down for two months without hearing a word from anyone.
But managing the half-dozen websites I host has never been easier or more robust and portable. While at times frustrating, the process was educational, fun and rewarding overall.
In the process, I found myself needing to relaunch all of my websites. And what good is a relaunch without a makeover? My webhosting and personal tech got a serious upgrade over the past few weeks, including new hardware in my Macbook, a boost to Marshmellow on my phone, a fancy new server sitting in my apartment, faster Internet, a shiny new tablet and more. My whole techno landscape is shiny and new.
After dragging my blogs through design hell, they joined the ranks of the flat, minimalist, mobile responsive sleek beasts roaming the web these days.
Frey Hargarten, my primary resume-ish web project, is where most content I produce across numerous publications and platforms is aggregated, mostly for my own gratification and convenience, but also to expand my digital footprint in order to avoid cross-pollination with other people’s work or mistaken identity in search results.
As Alan Moore famously said1, “If you are on a list targeted by the CIA, you really have nothing to worry about. If however, you have a name similar to somebody on a list targeted by the CIA, then you are dead.”
I’m not super worried that a CIA wet team will assault my apartment. But even then, while my name is rare, it’s not unique.
Jeff Hargarten is its most common permutation. Jeffrey Allan Hargarten if I were a snobby tweed-clad academic. Frey Hargarten if you were in a small circle that knew me during my lost years.
There aren’t a lot of us Jeff Hargartens around. The story goes that those with my last name are all fairly closely related and come from the German Rhineland. So I pity the John Smiths, Jane Does and Alan Smithees2 of the world. Seriously, do parents want to constantly hear about their kids being found adrift in a river or directing B-movies?
But while the Hargarten name is rare and of murky origin, I am not one-of-a-kind. There’s another Jeff Hargarten3 out there, a doppleganger of sorts. But he’s an older gentleman than I, meaning he’s not my good twin. He seems to own the company NORAM4 in Milwaukee and sells clutch brakes for bikes, tractors, go-karts, chainsaws and other things that would certainly kill me if I used them. There have also been rumblings of a couple others out there, and in the past I’ve been confronted with information related to a Jeff Hargarten who is most decidedly not me.
The fact that I’m not one-of-a-kind in any way, shape or form – like most of humanity – enhances the importance for me to lay claim to my social media identity before anyone else. In this uber-competitive job market within a vastly expanding global digital community, personal branding is vital, and not in a Gwyneth Paltrow my-stuff-is-goop kinda way5, but rather where my work in unmistakably mine.
Essentially, I had to upload myself online in Matrix-like fashion before anyone else could move into my piece of personal real estate. From there, it’s possible to define myself before anyone else does, to climb in the search results and craft my identity and brand name in order to hide my innumerable deficiencies.
With the sheer number of articles I’ve written for various publications, and even some that I haven’t6, I’m already well-placed in a Google search.7 But that’s not good enough. My relative, that other guy – they can still be found hiding the tall grass of Jeff Hargartenia.
What the Internet says we are has apparently become more important than who we actually are. What’s real has become secondary to online reputation and image. Vague postmodern memories of identity – mere echoes of people we haven’t really known or experienced – are more important in our Huxley-esque dystopian present than getting to actually understand another human being on a personal level. Ratcheting-up our number of followers, friends and subscribers vastly outweighs how many close personal relationships we maintain. While some Millennials might slowly be shifting away from this philosophy to reclaim real life one Instagram rage-quit at a time9, the necessity of maintaining an effective digital presence isn’t dissipating anytime soon.
Back at the University of Minnesota a handful of years ago, the New Media and Culture class taught by @professorshayla (who incidentally shares a name with an online porn-star whom I couldn’t find after a lengthy search) we discussed the concept of hyperreality10 where our minds reinterpret what’s real upon encountering digital simulations of reality. Hyperreality is reality by proxy, our subconscious assignment of meaning to innately meaningless symbols substituting for a person, institution or object. Jean Baudrillard11 used the example of an insanely-detailed map of the world so accurate and large that it covers the world. As reality beneath the map crumbles, the simulation remains and few notice the world they’re living in is no longer the original.
Of course, that leads to a brain-twisting journey through existential philosophy where the very concept of reality is questioned since what we see as real is actually just light-based signals translated by our brains, an insignificant sliver of an electromagnetic spectrum too vast for us to comprehend. Like Alice’s extended acid trip through Wonderland, the concept of what’s really real gets turned on its head before being decapitated by the Queen of Hearts.
We’re already live in a world where curating our online personas takes priority over cultivating ourselves, where the our very essence and focus is uploaded into a frigid underground server room in the Silicon Valley (or Sweden12 and Iceland13 in the case of controversy). In that virtual cloud, information becomes immortal and our digital footprint, that hyperreal representation of ourselves, will persist long after our deaths.
But I’ve started considering an alternative, a unique take on my name and online identity, and have decided to gradually switch my online persona and professional bylines to Frey Hargarten, that permutation of Jeffrey from my past that’s now purely being exploited for cynical branding purposes. Jeff still exists in day-to-day “real” life, but online he will be submerged, leaving a mad scramble for power among my various relatives/dopplegangers.
Over time, this space will likely flesh into a fuller representation of my career to supplant previous interpretations of my name and digital presence.
Either that, or I’ll get bored with it, neglect to update it regularly and just end up posting random tidbits interesting only to me. Actually, that sounds a lot more representative of who I am.