Do you need to be ‘authentic’ on social media?

There’s a lot of talk about ‘being authentic on social media’. And ‘authenticity’ being the only way to build a personal brand via social media, mainly because of the many ways people seem fake/unreal on online platforms.

I do not fully agree with these assertions, and that does not mean I recommend faking it on social media.

Reason? We need to understand what authenticity means, in context of social media.

To begin with, what we say or do on social media is not our real, everyday self. It is a performance. A carefully calibrated performance, and there’s nothing fake about it either. It is based entirely on our own lives, beliefs, likes, dislikes, fears, insecurities, joys and so on. But yet, it is still a performance!

There are three prominent reasons why our ‘performance’ on social media cannot be, and is not, authentic:

1. Selective reveal
Our social media utterances are not like a 24×7 livestream video where we live in front of others. We merely open several small windows throughout the day, to showcase what we are going through in life. There are so many more windows we do not open, for whatever reason, and hence our readers/followers form a perception about us based on only those windows that we choose to open to them.

2. Strangers in audience
When you talk in front of a group of people you know (neighbours, classmates, colleagues, family etc.), you are aware of almost each member in the audience (even online, on platforms like Facebook where you may be posting under privacy settings to reach only your ‘known’ connections) and they, about you. That awareness of your audience universe disarms you in saying many things that you may never say in front of strangers.

But broader social media utterances, on platforms like Twitter, or an open/public post on Facebook, made with the intention of sharing your opinion/view/perspective with the world and setting a perception about yourself as a result is done not just for the benefit of people you know, but also people you do not know. These kinds of content, that all of us share from time to time, are ‘broadcasts’. And when you broadcast something, without having a clear idea of who it may reach, you would be slightly more aware of what you say and how you say it. It’s the simple difference between you talking to your friends vs. you talking on a podium placed in the town-square.

3. Limelight on you
Continuing from the 2nd point on strangers, let’s focus not on the audience, but on you, the speaker. When the figurative limelight is on you—and this need not be a real stage; it could be something as simple as a presentation in the work place, you talking in your apartment committee meeting—you are acutely aware that you are the center of attraction, no matter how small or big the audience us, or whether you know the audience, or they know you. And you acquire some extra characteristics that come with the responsibility of being in the limelight.

So, you throw your voice, or choose to raise your tone, to help your audience. You are more aware of your posture and body language. You watch your audience for cues on how your talking is being perceived and make real-time changes in your speaking based on such feedback. And most importantly, you usually prepare what you may say, in order to not sound silly or unprepared on front of an audience.

Now, are these (a more impact tone/voice that you acquire, heightened awareness of posture/body language, a reasonably planned approach to what you say) your normal, everyday traits? Not really. They are restricted for your ‘limelight’ occasions. It’s the difference between our everyday home clothing vs. festival clothing, reserved for special occasions. The festival clothing is not the everyday, authentic you. But that doesn’t mean they are fake either. They are just a different, better you, reserved for certain occasions.

All this brings me to the fundamental difference of our everyday, regular conversations vs. social media ‘performance’. We continue those regular conversations on messaging platforms and email because we largely know who we are talking to. It’s like conversations in real life, just done digitally.

But, what we say on social media platforms is not everyday conversations. They are the equivalent of the presentation you make in your office, to an audience, as far as the preparation goes. They are the talk you deliver from a stage, to an audience. They are intended to offer our better/best selves to an audience in order for them to think something better of us.

At the same time, it is still very much us – just because we are well prepared in what we say, or do the research before saying something doesn’t mean it is not us. It is just a refined version of us.

Should people see only the refined version of us, and form a good opinion about us? Why not, if they are strangers? People who know us personally would anyway know the difference, if it is glaringly contrasting. So, it is up to us to not create a massive difference between the projected self online vs. how we are in real life. The closer the 2 identities, the better, for personal brands, since the audience consists of both people we know and strangers (since both exist on our digital circles).

You could argue – shouldn’t I reveal my insecurities, fears, worries, prejudices etc. on social media at all? If not, that’s like whitewashing my personality myself, no? Good question. Just consider this – would you announce/share your insecurities, fears, worries, prejudices in the middle of a busy road? Use the same guide to decide if you would share those online. Social media, no matter how well you curate your online connections, is like the middle of a busy road. It is not speaking among friends – that’s messaging.

When it comes to professional networking, you can showcase a really intelligent self by doing diligent research and uttering the most evolved and smart things online. That does create a great perception about you, no doubt. But when you get down to working with the people who hold that perception about you, it is up to you to make sure that you live up to what you created about yourself. If not, like the disappointment caused by a product’s advertising claim vs. it’s use in real life, the fall in perception is likely to do more damage than you can imagine.

Consider the difference in this way: in advertising, we exaggerate the product’s look to make it look incredibly alluring. So, the lighting, color and settings are all heightened to attract buyers. But the product is still the same. The functionality is the same. If you over-exaggerate the look, then there is bound be such a major chasm between what is shown and what people end up getting that the mismatch would backfire spectacularly.

Now, you could disregard all this and say that you will say and post whatever that comes to your mind without bothering about diligence or rigor, or about putting forward your better/best/refined self online. You may, and you should, if you believe that’s the real you. You should, if you also do not plan a public speech in real life, and simply walk up to the stage and blurt out whatever comes to your mind. If that’s really you, you deserve to be exactly that online too.

But if you won’t blurt out unprepared from a stage, in front of strangers as audience, and care for what they may think of you, then do consider the fact that your social media avatar need not be exactly same as your daily self that you reserve for people who know you well, up close. It can be different, better controlled, and yet not a fake version of you. It is still very much you, but a more thorough you.

You have the choice:

Option 1: You can think of whatever you say online as coming from your better self, the one that is speaking to an audience from a stage, with the limelight on you.

Option 2: You can think of whatever you say online as coming from you in your dark bedroom, you in pajamas and thinking that you are an anonymous speck that no one cares about.

Photo courtesy: Complete Wellbeing.



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