Authenticity in the era of the personal brand
A little while ago now, when I was deep in burnout mode, I had some really interesting conversations with a few great people in my digital community about how to be vulnerable and authentic online. Some were prepared to embrace it wholeheartedly, sharing their most personal struggles openly. Others felt that the lines between their personal and professional lives were sufficiently blurred that it could be a bad career move to reveal too much too honestly. And I totally understand where they're coming from. Being open and honest with your nearest and dearest is a completely different thing to being open and honest with thousands of followers across multiple platforms, especially if your business presence and next paid contract is contingent on maintaining a reputation as a thought leader, strategist or otherwise all-knowing type.
So does that rule it out entirely? Does it mean you’re only ever able to be honest and vulnerable in private, remaining stoic and upbeat in public? Is this only the case for people who have heavily digitised public persona? What does this mean for the quality of the connections we’re able to form with people in the digital age? Will every interaction be coloured by “brand alignment”?
I'm intrigued by the sense of digital isolation we feel in the era of the "personal brand", the way we construct our personas online, and whether or not we're truly able to be honest and vulnerable when people know us from behind a screen. I feel like there has been quite a bit written on this phenomenon of late, and I wanted to write a few things down about my take on it, as I do.
People often say to me that I don’t have ‘filters’, and I’m not convinced it is always intended as a compliment. I strive to be always honest, always up front, and always transparent across all areas of my life - digital and analogue. But in my experience so far this can create as just many problems as it solves. Not everyone is so comfortable with intimacy, I’ve discovered.
As R J Magill Jr explores in a wonderful piece for Salon, intimacy wasn’t always so idealised. Throughout the 20th century as social protocols began to relax, consumer culture took hold allowing us to “create” our public identity rather than just stick with the one we were born with, we began to get the hang of a greater level of intimacy in our public lives. Magill argues that when the counter-cultural movement took off in the 60s, emphasising a more genuine and authentic self than mass consumption offered, it brought a desire for intimacy that never really disappeared. In fact, as so many of the ills of modern life seem to increasingly be the result of everything becoming impersonal and industrialised, our desire for intimacy has grown.
Fast forward a few decades and a digital revolution, and still not everyone has got the hang of this degree of intimacy and transparency, and especially not those who don’t spend a lot of time on the internet. Does that have to do with them perhaps spending more time among those older social protocols - in a corporate or hierarchical setting? Are those who live active digital lives more prone to be “early adopters” with a stronger appetite for change? Is it possible that the radical transparency afforded to us on the internet is too much for the real world? Or am I just a compulsive over-sharer?
Those moments when I am sharing too much for someone else’s intimacy threshold aren’t just uncomfortable for them. When people I know from “the real world” tell me they’ve read my blog or saw something-or-other I posted on Instagram I feel a little nervous. And I think I’m nervous because I’m worried that people outside my digital universe don’t understand that it really is ok to be so honest in a public forum, or at least that people on the internet seem to be ok with it.
As old social conventions - manners, protocol, class and caste systems - deteriorate, we’re free to embrace new ways of interacting with each other. The invisible line between intimate disclosure and inappropriate oversharing will be different for every individual. But with the loosening of these expectations, and the emergence of new platforms and opportunities to engage with others, we have much greater freedom to determine what authenticity will look like for us.
Like most internet users, it isn’t uncommon for me to occasionally spend a few idle minutes flicking through the digital profiles of those I know, and those I’m “meeting” for the first time online. From Facebook photo galleries and carefully edited Instagram shots, to witty twittercisms and a trumped up LinkedIn profile. And like most internet users, I occasionally find myself feeling somewhat impressed, intimidated, and even envious when I stumble across a someone who seemingly has it all together - at least according to their online profile. This applies particularly to young overachievers, professional travellers, or impossibly fit and healthy types. Gets me every time.
But then I remind myself that it is mostly bullshit (or in marketing speak - SPIN). You know what I'm talking about. Those oh so carefully edited "about me" pages, strategically courted LinkedIn endorsements, Instagram feeds full of perfectly filtered images of beautiful people on a perpetual holiday. Nary a non-airbrushed photo in site, let alone an an honest confession or heartfelt conversation. We know what our social media updates would look like if they were honest. Something more like this.
I'm not exempt. I've spent long enough time thinking about whether or not to post this particular status update, or that exact photo that I know I’m as much a part of this as everyone else. The subconscious processing of what I should and should not tweet / post / otherwise spread far and wide is more frequent than I’d like. And I think it’s unnatural.
I also think it prevents us from knowing each other. I mean really knowing each other. I know a lot of people. A lot of people know me. Except I don’t really know them, and they don't really know me. They know a digitised version of me, and I know a carefully edited version of them.
So recently, I did a cull. I selectively unfollowed about 1000 people on Twitter, and unfriended about 600 people on Facebook. 600 people - people I know, people who know me. Except they don't really know me. Perhaps they knew me, once upon a time. Perhaps we met and they learned my name. Perhaps they met me in a semi-professional capacity. But they don't really know me. In fact, I'd say very few people do. Maybe a dozen or so in varying degrees, maybe 20 at a push. Facebook stats tell us 120 is the upper limit. Far less than the 400 odd I still have as Facebook friends. There's no offence intended by this cull. All it boils down to is that I want my Facebook "friends" to more closely reflect my true friends, because I want ALL my interactions to be more honest, and that includes interaction via the interwebz.
It can be hard to see the distinction between an edited or filtered online presence and a constructed artificial brand. And I’ve found at times that it is difficult to see the distinction from the inside too. The line between truth and "enhanced" truth can become blurred...
Many moons ago now I struck up a conversation with a fellow tweeter (who I’d not engaged with previously, but who has since become a dear friend) about the idea of a “consume-preneur”. Interestingly, our concepts of the term were different. He thought of it as someone who is active in the “entrepreneurship” space, and consumes all the relevant material, but never actually makes the jump to being a real life entrepreneur because they never actually create anything, instead building a “brand” about knowing all the right people / info / events, etc. And I assure you I’ve met quite a few of these types.
My idea of a “consume-preneur” is best personified by the fashion blogger - a professional consumer who builds a business and a brand out of their edited/curated/donated-by-a-pr-professional tastes and experiences.
(Even mega fashion blogger Garance Dore - who makes a living from a cleverly curated digital image (with just the right amount of carefully planned blog intimacy) - conceded that her digital life doesn’t correspond to the reality of her sometimes up, sometimes down existence. She also reminds us that a digital existence is no substitute for the real thing. “Between Instagram and real life, I say, always pick real life.”)
The thing I realise now though, many years later, is that so many off us fit into this category. The more our tastes and experiences are able to be documented via social media, the more they’re able to be quantified. The more we post the more we’re lauded. The more we’re lauded the more we want. And before you know it, you’ve moved a long way away from your real taste and experiences, and much closer to your followers’ tastes. Perhaps that’s too big a jump to make - but maybe not. It’s dangerous - the construction of a “self” meant entirely for public consumption, or consumption as an act of the construction of the self.
Our last Salon, veered toward the topic of “life airbrushing” - deliberately or unconsciously editing your appearance, interests. I’d argue that this is not a new phenomenon. Editing your preferences, for yourself or an audience would have once been called style or taste. But when the popularity of your edits become visible, and arbitrated by an international audience of anonymous voyeurs thanks to social media platforms, the stakes are raised. It becomes a competition of sorts. Where there had never been a right or wrong answer, just a series of personal preferences, there is now a quantifiable level of appeal - followers, likes, shares. How do you counteract the fact that you’re still being judged on a series of 140 character tidbits, or how many elements of your personality you can cleverly jam into your blog profile (subtly interspersed with gentle wit and self-deprication, of course).
We know it is damaging for women to conceive of themselves only as they look to the outside world. We know this can create insecurities, problems with self image, and a demon of body obsession. Therefore, isn't it possible that being overly concerned with the construction of a false digital identity can lead to preoccupation with our publicly projected image? Where does it end?
Now that our once quirky tastes or persuasions are now able to be tracked, quantified and measured for ROI, the clamour for more likes, retweets and comments feels like a perpetual popularity contest - public validation of your tastes and affirmation of your value.
When our engagement with others is via a third party platform, and filtered by the user for “brand alignment” and to ensure we’re presenting our best angle, we become consumers of media, not individuals. When once upon a time we might have been just two people chatting, our modern day (digital) conversations are able to be quantified by number of likes or number of comments - and these conversations are there for the whole world to see - like a friendship badge of honour.
One of my favourite people on the internet had some great thoughts on this during the week. Brian Bailey is the founder of Uncommon - a digital community that strives to resemble a real (offline) community - “a front porch for the internet” as he says, and one of my ongoing digital wonder-places. Brian’s perspective is especially insightful as he further develops Uncommon into something more focused on the meaning and connection that seems to be missing from so many of our digital interactions.
“I don’t remember counting friends before the rise of social networks. Now, that number is part of our public identity. Profile boxscores quantify our performance and provide easy comparisons with others.
Every photo and thought we share online, from the perfect brunch to a deeply personal essay, has a number attached to it. We're told that what matters is how many people see it, like it, share it, and comment on it.
Higher numbers serve as a proxy for popularity and sometimes, value.
When shown a set of numbers, we can be counted on to find ways to make them go up. These services thrive on our efforts to attract more friends and followers and increase the number of people who see and share our contributions.”
“When Uncommon first formed and our online home was still in the distant future, we decided that the site would not have any numbers. There wouldn’t be totals of friends, views or likes, and no red number telling you that you’re falling behind. The crowd wouldn’t determine what is seen and what isn’t. On a front porch, everyone should have a chance to speak and be heard.
There's a place for counting and competition, but not within the bonds of community and friendship. Uncommon is a neighborhood, not a network.”
Perhaps you can see now why I like Uncommon so much.
Radical [Digital] Transparency
And it seems I’m not alone in feeling this - and social media is certainly a great way to see this play out in real time. Like the counter-cultural revolution in the 70s - rebelling against mass consumption and industrialisation, the movement toward a more honest and open presentation of the self has been gaining traction - a response to what I think of as “peak life-airbrushing”. And this movement has found fertile ground in the digital space, where creatives, innovators and provocateurs engage directly with their audience without the need for editorialising by mainstream press.
The likes of Lena Dunham - who takes this approach across her other creative mediums - has become quite a poster child for this movement, despite being lambasted for her honesty in her book “Not That Kind of Girl”. (Which I loved, unsurprisingly.) Her attitude to transparency is refreshing, but it isn’t for everyone.
It has its pitfalls. Dunham has recently returned from a twitter sabbatical after being tormented on social media after allegations of molesting her sister based on a very honest story from her recently published book. (Which I loved, unsurprisingly.)
It isn’t just celebrity tweeters. Just this week I had lunch with a brilliant friend of mine who has also spent a long time working and playing in the digital space, and he remarked how much of a personal and emotional toll it takes to be so open and honest across so many platforms - editing and curating your public persona across 10 different platforms, 10 times over, tweaking it so it is just-so and gives just the right idea you want to portray. “It’s exhausting”, he sighed.
The downside of constant internet use - managing a public persona that can’t be left at the office, but needs to be maintained 24/7, and constantly feeling like you need to be emotionally available to everyone all the time is being emotionally fatigued. Being honest and intimate with EVERYONE is exhausting. Sometimes (often!) impersonal transactional encounters are necessary. But does our increasingly digital public profile allow for that?
Gone are the days when we knew only a handful of people beyond our own family, or our small village, but it is only so recently that the ability to have direct conversations with broader networks have emerged. The difference is, we’re doing it from behind a screen, with the added benefit of editing available to us. How does this colour our interactions?
As Helena Price reflected in her recent post about her social media purge: “We’re among the first generations expected to maintain connections with every single person we’ve ever met, thanks to the Internet. The weight of our swollen social networks can be super stressful, let alone a distraction from knowing who you want to focus your time on.”
Social soul searching (aka ALL of the questions)
So what it is about the present day that feels like we’re entering some kind of a tech-enabled 70s era cultural revolution where intimacy is the end goal? Is our sense of impersonality and desire for intimacy a logical conclusion given the state of industrialised capitalism? Is our craving for intimacy and authenticity testament that we’re looking for meaning wherever we can get it? Is it a way to foster humanity in an increasingly inhuman (mechanised) world. Are we trying to overcome the distance and estrangement our own inventions have created for us? Or, as Umair Haque ponders in his essay “Youtopia”, “Are we being had by others who are better at playing the game? Is a constructed identity / versions of the truth the key to capitalism’s stronghold?”
But also - The ideology of intimacy - is it real? Why do we crave emotional intimacy with those we don’t even know? Is it that we’re being so severely deprived of it with people in our personal lives? Are we craving the meaning and connection we’re not getting from our working and civic lives?
Do we crave intimacy because we’re self obsessed? Because we would rather find the connection with another unique individual like us than understand ourselves as part of a bigger homogenous whole?
Is it that we’re craving a connection with something bigger than ourselves? Is the opportunity to construct an authentic digital brand the ultimate existential indulgence? And in an age of pervasive atheism the only thing bigger than ourselves is someone else?
According to Adorno (Minima moralia) “A good, honest life is no longer possible, because we live in an inhuman society.” Does this mean that any attempt to “be honest” in a digital world is impossible, as it is deliberate and constructed and therefore far from honest?
The idea of the constructed public identity is problematic. The idea of life-photoshopping the everyday for external consumption is problematic. But the thing I can’t figure out is: are we lying to everyone else or to ourselves?
This week, in a mood of reflection, I spent some time looking back through old blog posts, tweets and status updates. It’s been interesting to observe the shifts in my own digital behaviour as my attitudes to authenticity and vulnerability evolve. I wrote a while back about being very aware that I wasn’t maximising my social media opportunities - instead becoming aware of moments that don’t NEED to be captured digitally, and making a point of keeping these for myself. It’s been an interesting shift. Where I once was looking for interesting things to share, now I try to be more discerning and incidental about sharing things that I think will be of value.
Kevan Lee wrote a great post for Buffer about how to be honest and authentic online and he offered this handy advice.
Always be authentic. Be varying degrees of transparent.
It sounds simple enough, but I wonder if the focus on what’s being publicly portrayed is irreversably damaging our ability to even BE authentic, in favour of always being transparent. It kind of feels like all this is yet another distraction from the job of actually getting to know ourselves, because a cleverly curated digital brand is really just a way for us to be known, rather than a way to know ourselves. The time we spend carefully cultivating a digital presence is time we’re not spending getting to know ourselves - our real selves - personally and intimately. And the time we spend getting to know other people’s digital profiles is time we’re not spending getting to know other people - their real selves. Or is our digital life it a tool for exploring our own identity (and that of others) meaningfully? Can we really use the internet to get under the ego to stare directly at the id, or is it creating an even bigger roadblock than had previously existed.
My more than 140 character summary
For me, it comes down to this:
We haven’t figured out how to make this work for us in a digital sense. It’s no different to that awkward teenage stage when we’re trying to find our voice, and to speak in a way that honours who we are, while allowing room for us to evolve. Will it get there? I’m not convinced yet, but there certainly are interesting things happening in some hidden pockets of the internet.
As humans we're very complex. And that complexity is almost impossible to distill down to a series of 140 character soundbites or a carefully curated photo album. Each of us can be simultaneously very wise, and also really struggling with certain things. We can be very together and also trying to figure things out. We struggle with nuance. We might be complex, but we struggle to hold two conflicting ideas in our head at the same time.
We forget that it’s all the stuff between the carefully edited pictures, blog posts, shared links and professional profile that makes us real. Its your tiny insignificant likes and dislikes, voice inflections, language quirks, body language, and all the other bits that you would never think to share. And if you are sharing them to a mass audience then it would be hard to claim intimacy or authenticity. It’s impossible to know anyone entirely from their digital footprint no matter how authentic, transparent and vulnerable they are willing to be.
The thing is: we’re more than what we claim to be and more than we project publicly. We’re more than we can comprehend. The depth and diversity of the human experience is so vast, and there is no way we could possibly distill all that we are, all that we have been and all that we’d like to be into a perfectly considered and articulated personal brand communicated in a series of edited photos and 140 character updates. No one can do that. Not even Beyonce. (And she has a whole team dedicated to it. Plus she’s probably superhuman.) If we can use all the possible channels available to us (yes, including the internet) to explore ourselves and others to the fullest extent possible, then perhaps we’ll come close to understanding this.
- Self-actualisation and the web: Is the internet nearing Maslow's hierarchy? Ben Rowe
- Generation Like - hour long PBS Documentary
- Youtopia : Umair Haque
- Let's all be a lot less honest - Lena Dunham, naked selfies and the irony of over sharing : R J Magill for Salon
- The elusive art of inner wholeness and how to stop hiding our souls : Brainpickings
- How much of yourself should you reveal online? : Kevan Lee for Buffer
- The purge : what happens when you unfollow everyone on the internet : Helena Price
- Take fewer photos, make fewer memories : Braden Thompson
- The age of loneliness : George Monbiot for The Guardian
- Uncommon in Common
- The century of the self : 1 hour documentary on Vimeo