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A surreal image of a man creating his own persona

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A few weeks ago, José discussed the importance of having a strong online persona. Despite its importance, it isn’t always easy to sit down and think about one’s persona, and it can be tempting to toss it in the ‘too difficult’ bin. I know because, in addition to being the Senior Editor here at Newstex, I’m also a content creator who has had to grapple with these issues. Jose has asked me to share my experiences, and I hope it’ll make the prospect of sorting out your persona a little less intimidating. 

Who am I?

My name is Jason Loch, and since 2014 I’ve been blogging about the British constitution over at A Venerable Puzzle. I started my blog because I was dissatisfied with the way major media outlets (on both sides of the Pond) covered constitutional issues in the UK. Many times, they presented oversimplified accounts that had an element of truth but were arguably misleading. For example, many pundits seemed to struggle with the intricacies of the Parliament Acts 1911 & 1949. They portrayed it as a sort of legislative easy button that rendered the House of Lords totally irrelevant. While it’s true that peers can’t permanently block legislation passed by the Commons, there are some significant caveats. Most notably, it takes about a year to invoke the Parliament Acts. Now that’s an eternity in politics, so governments are strongly incentivized to find a compromise if peers dig in their heels. The data shows that this is, in fact, what often happens, but you’d never guess that from the way the media covers the Lords. And that, in turn, makes it harder for people to have informed discussions about Lords reform. I imagined my blog being a place where I could share deeper, more nuanced accounts of these topics while still keeping my content accessible enough for a non-specialist audience.    

I was also motivated by a strong belief in the importance of making knowledge freely available. When I was in grad school, we were taught to focus our writing efforts on academic journals and scholarly monographs. Those are valuable resources to be sure, but they’re not particularly accessible. When a single monograph can easily cost hundreds of dollars, it’s often going to be out of reach to both the average person and their local public library. With blogging, I could reach beyond the confines of the Ivory Tower.

Sketching the outlines of a persona

Although I didn’t consciously think about my persona when I started my blog, looking back, I can see that I was already starting to sketch its outlines. It took me a while to find my voice. Looking back, my earliest posts feel more journalistic than academic. Much of my effort was focused on covering topical news stories such as the House of Lords Reform Act 2014. I didn’t limit myself to Britain, either–I also discussed items from Commonwealth Realms such as Australia

In hindsight, my approach was both too broad and too shallow. Covering stories from across the Commonwealth Realms wasn’t sustainable. While countries like Canada, Australia, and New Zealand have many constitutional similarities with the UK, they’re not interchangeable. This meant I had to do a lot of extra work when I was writing about non-UK stuff, and that’s hard to do when you’re trying to cover a breaking new story. I also came to realize that time zones weren’t my friend. The realities of geography meant  I was often several hours late to the party.

I also came to realize that I wasn’t playing to my strengths. I’ve always been a researcher at heart. As a kid, I once sat down at my Apple IIGS to write a little paper about Tyrannosaurus rex, and I loved writing elaborate fictional histories (complete with footnotes!). I like to think I have a knack for taking information and synthesizing it in an approachable manner. But that wasn’t really on display in my earliest blog posts. 

I soon realized that including formal citations wasn’t just a matter of satisfying my inner historian. It was also a way to help my readers launch their own explorations of a topic. Having formally trained as a historian, I can find sources that the average person may not know about, and the digitization efforts of Google and others mean that even esoteric works like Coote’s Ecclesiastical Practice are often just a few clicks away. 

Promoting yourself without selling yourself

Like many midwesterners, self-promotion doesn’t come easily to me. It feels too much like bragging. I also lost my interest in social media a long time ago. I suppose I hoped that my writing would be able to stand on its own, thus sparing me the need to proactively promote myself. To be honest, there was a dollop of snobbishness there, too. As far as I was concerned, Twitter and Facebook were the domain of narcissists who can’t let a thought cross their mind without sharing it with the world. 

Alas, that’s not how the world works. You can write a heartbreaking work of staggering genius, but it’s not going to matter if no one knows about it. I once knew someone who self-published a novel on Amazon but didn’t do any promotion at all. He seemed to believe that he could hit the upload button and wait for the money to come rolling in. When sales didn’t meet his expectations, he got discouraged and stopped writing for good.

Of course, there’s often a gulf between understanding an action, and it took me a long time to reconcile myself to the need to promote myself. I started out with a Facebook page for my blog. I set it up so that my posts would be automatically published to the page. While that helped me expand my content’s reach, it wasn’t enough. 

A wretched hive of scum and villainy?

Eventually, I decided to try Twitter. At first, I created a separate Twitter account for my blog and mostly contented myself with only posting links to new posts. This was not a recipe for success. If all you do is post links to your own stuff, your feed is going to seem very stale. Sure, you’ll get followers, but their connection to you is going to be quite superficial because you aren’t really engaging them. At the same time, because I was tweeting as “A Venerable Puzzle” and not “Jason Loch,” it was hard to inject any personality into my social media presence. The fact that I didn’t enjoy social media also meant that operating a second account felt like more of a chore than anything else. 

In time, I decided to try tweeting from my personal account. Not only did it make my life a lot simpler, but it also opened the door to building genuine rapport with my readers. It became easier to come up with things to say, and people were more likely to interact with me because I had an actual name and a face. 

To my surprise, Twitter turned out to be a wonderful tool. It’s a great place to discuss topics that aren’t meaty enough for a blog post. For example, one of my interests is diplomatics (that’s a fancy term for the study of documents and it has nothing to do with diplomacy), and Twitter is a great place to discuss that because you can upload photos of documents with your tweets. It’s also the perfect venue to share interesting nuggets of information that I come across in my research. 

Although Twitter is often described as a hellsite (with good reason!), my experiences have been almost universally positive. I’ve met some wonderful people who have become friends as well as colleagues. Our conversations have been a source of both inspiration and edification. At the same time though, I’ve made it a habit to tweet mindfully. Loose lips can sink more than ships; they can sink a reputation, too. Consequently, I try to be disciplined in the sort of things I tweet. I don’t do hot takes–more often than not, they age about as well as a glass of milk left out in the summer sun. I don’t try to be a jokester, either. It’s easy for people to take your words the wrong way when they’re not accompanied by the moderating forces of intonation and body language. If people want to laugh, they can go see a show at Second City. If they want to know the difference between the King’s Consent and Royal Assent, they can come to me. Finally, I keep my personal life off of Twitter. Some people treat social media like a confessional, but I treat it like a digital public square. Just as I don’t subject the grocery store cashier to a tearful discussion of my darkest fears, I don’t subject my Twitter followers to that, either. 

But being professional doesn’t mean I have to be aloof. I love it when people ask me questions, and I try to be just as helpful whether the questioner is a student or a seasoned denizen of Whitehall. Many years ago, I sent an email to a famous Egyptologist named John Baines. I was in middle school and had to use my mom’s email address because I didn’t have one of my own. I asked whether any ancient Egyptian clergy had to be celibate and I requested recommendations for books about Roman Egypt. Even though I was just a random kid from across the Atlantic, Baines gave me a detailed and helpful reply. I really appreciated his kindness, and the moment has stuck with me all these years.  

The power of persona

Ultimately, I’m quite happy with the persona I’ve fashioned for myself. Like the British constitution itself, it arose organically over time. It’s true to who I am, so I’m not sacrificing authenticity. I also believe it does a good job of buttressing my reputation as a serious commentator on the British constitution who doesn’t shy away from complex or nuanced topics. Sure, a different persona might lend itself more to virality, but that’s not something I seek. I don’t need to be the PewDiePie of the British constitution; I’m happy being myself.

For more information about online personas, check out "What is a persona, and why does it matter for content creators?"