The Ways We Lie Online

Yesterday I sat on the back patio of a bakery here in DC talking to my friend Gideon about the intersections between claiming the life we want and defining ourselves on social media.

Heady stuff for a Thursday, to be sure, but one of the things I like about Gideon is that he’s allergic to small talk. We always get right into the deep shit. He’s a coach who helps people transform their lives, and I help people tell their stories… we were exploring how the two overlap, and brainstorming some workshops we might want to offer together.

It was hot, and kids were squealing as parents chatted nearby. Water shot up from a big fountain at the center of the patio, then fell back down into the pool below; this happened again and again, in a pretty, predictable way.

Our desires are less predictable, of course, as are our moods, and yet, as Deanna Zandt so aptly highlights in this provocative talk, too often, the only state of being we project online is one that is happy, and, above all else, tidy:

But we’re not tidy, are we? Not by a long shot. 

As someone who helps people distill and communicate their personal brands, I grapple with this — because as much as I’m a champion of air-tight strategy, I’m also a champion of authenticity, and complete authenticity means letting it all hang out (whereas partial authenticity means, being true to your values, but being more intentional about what you share, and how). Partial authenticity is better than zero authenticity, I suppose, but on the other hand, maybe any compromise of total authenticity is a compromise we shouldn’t be so quick to make.

Angie: A Case Study

To make this discussion more concrete: Imagine a filmmaker…let’s call her Angie. For a long time, Angie made feature films with the major studios, but now she’s starting to produce small independent documentaries that tell stories about women and people of color. She’s putting together a website, she’s active on Twitter and Instagram, and she wants to be real, but she also wants to leverage these platforms to begin communicating to potential partners and funders exactly what it is she stands for, and exactly what kind of work she does (and wants to do more of).

But it’s not as simple as creating a website or social media profiles that describe her as a documentary producer who champions diversity, because she’s also working with a friend on a Young Adult novel with a strong female lead, which she hopes to turn into a film one day. And she wants to convene women media makers and artists in her area for a day to explore how they can work together to champion women’s stories.

Angie is also an aunt, a sister, and the survivor of domestic abuse, and a hundred other things, like so many of us are.

She’s not something that can be packaged in a tiny little box — she’s not a product.  She’s a person.

So often it feels like that that’s exactly what social media wants us to do: Commercialize ourselves, and communicate who we are in soundbites. Reveal only what fits the narrative.

Finding Fulfillment Is Messy Business

Part of my vision for Having a Ball Having it All (which is the name of this blog, in case you missed it) is to make room for messiness in how we tell women’s stories. I want to showcase diverse perspectives about what it means for women to find fulfillment and meaning… a counterpoint to the mainstream narrative about “having it all” that you find in women’s magazines and the like (“3 easy ways to make weeknight dinners in 30 minutes or less!!” “How to squeeze a workout into your work day!” “Must-have clothes for spring that’ll make you feel sexy!”).

This is me with no makeup, no smile, and I didn’t let myself retake the photo to make myself look prettier. I look weird. But it’s real.

(Memo to the world: There is more to “having it all” than being thin, or sexy, or efficient.)

And yet, while I champion this messiness, I am also a content strategist who helps people and organizations share content in strategic ways to help them meet their goals. As a consultant, I know that just sharing whatever the fuck you feel like sharing on a given day, day after day, is not very likely to help you attract the people or opportunities you seek. It’s ineffective. You need content that expresses your values, tells your story, engages people, and gets them to do whatever it is you want them to do — sign up for your newsletter, donate to your cause, share your message, etc.

I tell my clients that authenticity and strategy are not mutually exclusive. If you know who you are, and you know your goals, you can be true to yourself in your pursuit of those goals, even if there’s strategy involved. (See: the “partial authenticity” I described above.)

But…what if you don’t know who you are?

What if you need to use media more to find yourself than to announce yourself? 

What if the two aren’t mutually exclusive?

More Openness, More Power?

Maybe just as human beings have always lived our way into our truth, we need to begin living online in a more truly open way that uses the power of networked media to help us uncover who we are, and who we want to be.

In Deanna’s talk, she contrasts a screenshot of a collage of her happy social media updates from a summer a few years back with the announcement that at the time, she was more depressed than she’d ever been… possibly suicidal.

Can we let it all hang out online without being a burden? I recently went through a rough inter-city move, and began to feel self-conscious after publishing several blog posts that detailed the stress I was experiencing.

Can we be authentic without being self-indulgent? Where is the line?

I think these and the questions Deanna raises are essential ones to explore as young people begin using social media earlier and earlier, and at a time when all of us are using social media more and more.. How does this media affect our sense of self? And how can we use it in constructive ways not only to promote ourselves when we have a clear goal in mind, but also to help us navigate the confusion of not knowing for certain exactly what our goals may be?

Certainly, I can think of some artists who already appear to be profoundly authentic and unedited online. They appear to make themselves vulnerable, sharing dreams that are hard to utter aloud. I see these people forming true communities that I know to buoy and guide them…communities that often translate offline, as well.

Of course, I don’t know what they may be holding back, or how much the appearance of vulnerability is the intended effect, rather than the truth. We can never know, really, can we?

The Pressure of Perfection

For most people, social media is a performance space that demands perfection — a smile plastered on your face, all questions answered (and none asked). And there are real pressures, not just social but also practical, that create an environment where people feel limited in what they can do or say online. When future employers and anyone else under the sun can search your digital footprint, there are real consequences to being vulnerable, unmanicured, MESSY, on social media. And yet, to avoid the potential to connect, to discover, to self-actualize, that comes from being REAL online, out of fear of future retribution, is, while understandable, also tremendously sad, because it limits the potential of social media not only to promote ourselves, but also to unlock ourselves.

I hope you’ll watch Deanna’s talk above, and think about these issues, and about how you can “be the change” on this issue. I’ll be doing the same.

Thanks for reading. I hope these jumbled (messy) thoughts made sense, and resonated in some way. If they did, I’d love to hear from you.

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