Being Authentic on Facebook

The Women's Information Network, aka WIN I led a workshop this morning with my friend Gideon Culman on the subject of social media and identity (part of the Women’s Information Network‘s brunch series), and one of the themes that kept coming up for the women in attendance was, “It’s too hard to be myself on Facebook, in front of the judging eyes of friends and family.

Sound familiar?

“Half my family is Republican. They’d freak if I shared my political views.”

These were women for whom politics is a core part of their identity, many of whom have devoted their lives to working on progressive social issues, and yet, in front of their families, they feel they must behave differently…must censor themselves.

Facebook logo and the message, "Facebook helps you connect and share with the people in your life'

Does it really?

These women are feminists, and yet, they perform, in order to avoid unpleasantness, or confrontation. I don’t judge them— I do it myself, to some degree (yes, as much as I share, there are certainly things I leave out, on purpose)…but it was upsetting, the extent to which this kind of self-censorship emerged as a theme in this morning’s discussion.

Of course, politics has been a fraught subject matter for ages, long before social media rolled around.

But as we gear up for our next presidential election, what gets lost as a democracy when we can’t have constructive conversations about these issues with those to whom we’re related, let alone friends or colleagues who might not share our views?

We blame our politicians for being polarized, unable to reach across the proverbial aisle, and yet, we model the same behaviors in our homes…and, yes, on Facebook.

When we post cute dog pictures, instead of saying, “This thing happened in the news this week and it upset me and HERE’S WHY,” we are saying, “I don’t have faith that you can speak intelligently or thoughtfully with me about this, so I won’t even try.”

Maybe we’ve been burned. Maybe we’ve tried before, and been shot down, so we’ve given up.

But at what cost, not only to our democracy, but also to our chance of real closeness with the people in our lives?

Adorable puppy

Puppies are great — but if you want to share more, you should (photo by Jonathan Kriz)

The “here’s why this matters to me” part above is what’s really essential, by the way — not just passing along angry headlines, but taking the time to articulate what the news means to you. To share your own thinking. Because the reason you share an article may not be the same reason I do. And hearing your reasoning may affect my consciousness (and get my attention) in a way that simply seeing the headline in my feed would not.

Of course, it’s not just politics that we avoid discussing.

A friend of mine, let’s call her Tracy, says her relatives judge her harshly whenever she expresses anything but gratitude for her children. So Facebook becomes a place of artifice for her, a place to push down the messy, ugly, real feelings about needing a break or feeling annoyed, and just beam up a picture of Domestic Joy.

…Which is bullshit, as anyone who’s ever been a parent knows (and as the rest of you can probably deduce, intuitively). I’m madly in love with my daughter, but it ain’t all roses and teddy bears.

So, what’s the answer? Start pissing off relatives left and right? Well, that’s one option. You could just let it all hang out, and que sera sera…if they can’t take it, screw ’em.

If that’s not your style, though, here are a couple of other ideas:

  1. Share Selectively: On Facebook and Google+, you can choose to share your status with a targeted sub-group of your followers, instead of with everyone. I like the practicality of this approach, and it’s certainly non-confrontational, but it also bugs the purist in me, because you aren’t really solving the problem…you’re just skirting it. Then again, we’re all busy, and this is a nice, easy approach that you can implement immediately. You get to share more freely and truthfully without starting any drama.
  2. Invite Everyone to a More Private Conversation on a Polarizing Topic: For example, you could say on Facebook, “I’m starting a weekly e-newsletter this election cycle where I’ll share a roundup of what I consider to be must-read articles and why I think they’re important. I welcome people of all beliefs to subscribe and engage in open-minded conversation with me about my ideas. If you just want to pick a fight or advocate pre-existing positions without considering what I share, please don’t subscribe.”What I like about this option is that you’re opening up the opportunity for constructive discussion to everyone (whether it’s about politics, or parenting ups and downs, or religions…whatever “taboo” topic feels most central in your life), but you’re setting up clear ground rules, and if someone doesn’t follow them, you can exclude them. If you go this route, Mailchimp is easy to use, and free until you reach more than 2,000 subscribers.
  3. Find Other Outlets: If Facebook is just too full of people who make you self-conscious about sharing things that matter to you, consider finding another outlet where you cultivate your community more selectively. This is like option #2 except you don’t have to announce your alternative outlet to everyone…just go do it and hope they don’t find it (chances are, your cranky grandmother who thinks it’s shameful to be a feminist won’t find you on Instagram, for example). Depending on your subject matter and preferences, you could try out Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest, or, an e-newsletter, just to name a few options.I have a presence on many different social networks, and I cater the content I share on each; LinkedIn is for professional insights, for example, and the only place I share cute pics of my daughter is on Facebook. Twitter is where I pretty much let it all hang out, except for my business account, which is more focused.

Of course, anything you share online, anywhere, is less private than, say, the thoughts buried deep inside your mind (in other words, Grandma might find Instagram). But that’s the point: We all have gifts to share. There is power to your voice; don’t keep it locked inside.

One of the women at this morning’s discussion said, “I’m just private, and I don’t see a problem with that. Why should I let it all hang out online?”

By all means, don’t. There’s no one “right way” to be when it comes to Facebook, or any social network, or life, for that matter. Certainly, we all know people who we WISH would let it all hang out quite a bit less! But if you’re holding back out of fear… I say… don’t accept this outcome. Find another way. Even if it means taking on the deeper, harder work of setting new boundaries with some of your relatives or friends.

I don’t mean to say it’s easy; it’s not. But what is the cost of avoiding this difficult work? What is the cost, when we let other people’s judgment silence us?

What’s the point of sharing at all, if it’s all an elaborate performance to reinforce other people’s false notions of us?

Being real is really fucking hard. But what if we committed to doing it, together?

Earlier On This Blog…

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13 thoughts on “Being Authentic on Facebook

  1. I think this is a great point, Amanda. If you’re passionate about a cause, should you stifle that out of fear you might offend, and potentially miss the chance to educate someone or change someone’s mind? What if you miss your own chance to be enlightened or changed because someone else is censoring?If your FB friends are really your friends, shouldn’t they be your most trusted circle where you can share the things that really speak to your heart and learn from people who care about you?I’ve seen a few people do a nice job of teeing up a specific post or question that way — leading off by saying something like, "I’d like your perspective on X. I have friends and family all over the spectrum on this and I think it could be really useful to hear the range of ideas, so let’s be respectful. I’ll delete any comments I think cross the line."I’ve seen some nasty exchanges on FB, had a few on my own posts, and it’s unpleasant to be sure. But I don’t stop hosting parties because one guest gets drunk and belligerent. I stop inviting him and get on with the show.

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    • Excellent points, Colleen…complete with a wonderful analogy, OF COURSE ;). I think if it’s just about nixing one guest from the guest list, that’s not so bad, but when people feel like half their Facebook friends are a hostile audience…it’s trickier. At the workshop people who were ardent Democrats spoke of feeling stifled because their entire extended family was Republican. I don’t know if they ever tried speaking up and got burned, or if they’re assuming what the response would be. One woman shared that she’d accepted friend requests from a bunch of coworkers over the years, something she now regretted, because it made her feel self-conscious about what she could say. I think it all really points to a growing need for a new kind of literacy, and a lot of mindfulness. How do you decide who to make your Facebook friend? If you want to be able to express yourself and reap the rewards that can come from that, and from connecting with people you don’t get to see every day… how do you design or protect a Facebook experience that allows that?

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  2. Here to bring the contrary, as usual, I guess. I think social networks tease out the basic human desire to bullshit. I don’t think people en masse care about authenticity, though I’m sure some individuals do. It almost seems quaint! I’m not generally interested in sharing anything personal, nor am I all that interested in reading anyone’s personal updates, though I’m not opposed to it either. I like kid pictures, animal pictures, family pictures, vacation pictures, what-have-you, but I guess I don’t believe there is such a thing as being authentic in front of an audience. Discussions can be great, but substantive discussions happening in the comments to posts are rare (that I’ve seen anyway). Discourse online has devolved into a bullying, skulking affair, it seems, regardless of the network. I have this one client who has a client who is just nasty – dragon ladies, they call them. When you see them in person, they are meek as lambs. Get them in a conference call and they are ferocious, belittling, nasty little demons. I think there is something weirdly lost (hopefully to be regained at some point) in the disconnect between physical conversation and the distance any technology brings. It is sad to think of someone afraid of the judgment a post might bring, but why look to approval or acceptance there? Haters gonna hate, as they say.

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    • Oh Kate…I find this so depressing. "I guess I don’t believe there is such a thing as being authentic in front of an audience." As an actor I disagree. I have been in a state of flow with another actor on stage and if what we created wasn’t authentic, I don’t know what is.

      This all raises the heady philosophical question of what authenticity really is. Is it an objective state or does it only exist in the eye of the beholder? Maybe you feel most authentic when you aren’t around other people but are you then performing for yourself? We all tell ourselves stories about what is or isn’t true… is a story we tell ourselves inherently truer than a story we tell someone else?

      I wonder what you think about my most recent post about spreading goodness online. Are we victims of "haters gonna hate" or can those of us who aren’t haters "be the change"? After all, isn’t the web (social networks included) still a relatively new medium? Are we destined to having its worst characteristics dominate?

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      • Hahaha. I can just hear your voice saying, "Oh, Kate." Maybe you’ve caught me in a spell, but here goes. I think authenticity is changeable, no? I’m not suggesting that you can’t find a truth through art or on stage, for example, but I think that truth is influenced by the interaction with the audience. It becomes some other thing, some other truth in that interaction (maybe a greater truth, or falsity). Just to mess with your head, think about characters in myths: the Trickster character lies and deceives, and as a result reveals or creates another kind of truth. Where is the authenticity in THAT! 😉 Who hasn’t been swift-boated by some flinty a-hole in their life? The stories we tell ourselves shift as we interact with others, and one might argue they are for others as much as they are for ourselves. I guess I do believe there is greater potential for authenticity, truth, in those things we don’t share, but that might be my own exhaustion with the sharing culture. For our next in -person conversation, perhaps: (Baudrillard sometimes makes my head hurt): https://www.cla.purdue.edu/english/theory/postmodernism/modules/baudrillardsimulation.html

        Yeah, and I think those terrible characteristics will always dominate. They might be pushed to some shady corner of the Internet, and that would be grand if they were, but they represent human nature, I think. I appreciate, as always, your optimism for something better!

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      • I was just thinking (to add to this) about how important it seems to be these days to get ahead of the story before it defines you. It’s like average people are working angles once reserved solely for celebrities or politicians because it is important now more than ever to define who you are in a saturated digital landscape, and to do it before someone does it for you (or surpasses you).

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      • Yes – that’s what the personal brand is all about. At the same time, if you are clear on who you are and behave with integrity, perhaps your personal brand writes itself.

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      • Haha. Well, I don’t think it’s that easy.(And you know how I feel about equating people with brands. People are messy, if they have any integrity. People aren’t brand promises that are cultivated over decades. Yuk.) For the next convo!

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      • I know, the word "brand" sucks, because it calls to mind branding a cow (lovely), and equates people with products, which (as you say)(and as I argued in another recent post, The Ways We Lie Online) they are most certainly not. And yet, I don’t know a better, succinct way of saying "the main story and qualities people associate with someone" than, "personal brand." We need new language though, for sure.

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      • Oh my goodness…Baudrillard… I’ll have to (wo)man up and pour a stiff drink, but I WILL read this!

        Lots of other thoughts but find myself writing in circles so maybe it’s best as you say to pick this up in person :).

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      • The difference here I think is that you have a greater chance for constructive criticism and debate, people are subscribing and want to participate, and people will likely know one another (or have a six-degree connection) and be perhaps less willing to go balls-out on everyone who disagrees with them.

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