Social media and the illusion of perfection

 This morning, Sean Platt sent out a link to the article, "Faking it : The art of perfection in social media", written by Lauren Fisher. It's an interesting discussion of how we present ourselves in the realm of online social media. In particular, it goes into the quest to be flawless: removing tags to embarrassing photos, muzzling our discourse, always staying on-message, etc. All of this is to prevent some future employer from Googling up something untoward at some point in our later careers.
But at every level of the content that we share about ourselves, we are making a fundamental change in the way that people perceive. We’re not so much sharing ‘fake’ content about ourselves, but the content that fits to support the life we want to portray. ... It’s not disingenuine, far from it. Rather, it is exercising a level of control that we have never had before, that allows anyone to ‘discover’ us online, whether we’ve met them offline or not, and instantly form an opinion about ourselves, our worthiness to be followed, or what category you fall into.
The article goes on to discuss the complications involved in managing a constructed life. Some real world examples are offered as well, including what happens to people when they live their lives knowing that all of their social interactions are being watched and judged.

Is it different for people who are online for purely social reasons vs. people who spend time in social media in order to get a career off the ground? Indie bands, small business owners, and maybe, oh, I don't know.... writers? These are people who draw a distinction between normal social activity (which can be spontaneous and directionless) and efforts to advance their specific intent of building a brand (which are supposed to be intentional).

There have been a number of writers online whom I've seen post something like, "This has been fun, guys, but I'm now setting up an Author Page on Facebook so I can keep my socializing separate from my interactions as a serious writer." I found these to be jarring, and perhaps others did as well. I suppose the social circle overlap of family-friends-church-neighbors-etc. with writers-editors-readers-agents-publishers-etc. got to be too messy. Ideally, we would think of everything in advance, so as to avoid the necessity of having to make such announcements. Alternatively, maybe technology will come to our rescue, like the way Google + allows you to set up circles of interest, so your book club doesn't have to listen to your political discussions.

And what happens when your perfectly constructed online life doesn't match up with the messiness of your real life? Is this a new societal phenomenon? Although the article presents it as such, I don't believe that it is. People have always been liable to show one face to the street while wearing another in the home. The goal of self-actualization is to be able to be the same person at work or church or on a camping trip that you are at home. "Just be yourself": it's a valid goal to strive for, if only because it takes a lot of work to switch back and forth among different masks and personalities.

I would think that for people prone to wearing such masks, the shelter of online social media could be a dangerous crutch. However, it's just as likely that the same sheltering aspects could allow people to let their true selves shine out, freed from the expectational baggage of past relationships.

Do we live for ourselves or for others? What do we want out of life? Who are we, really? These are not questions that have arisen concurrently with Facebook and Twitter. They come from us being human, in all our frailties and finery.

Update: Click here for "Spit and Polish or Spit and Scowl?", a response to this blog post by Zoe Whitten, looking at this issue of social media presence from the standpoint of someone with a message people don't want to hear.

===== Feel free to comment on this or any other post.


  1. You make a lot of good points. I think there's a lot to be said for just being yourself - after all, say you remove all of the tags to embarrassing photos, and then you become hugely famous...what's to stop someone digging them up and putting them online anyway? Simply disassociating yourself from them isn't going to make them go away. I had someone post photos of me from when I was at school, but I removed the tags because of self-esteem issues. (My low self-esteem was fixed at the point at which the photos were taken, and to see them again was too much of a bad reminder.) However, I'd have done that whether I was trying to build a writing career or not.

    A lot of the writers I know, I like them because I've gotten to know them, not their online image, and I think that you can be yourself and remain "on message" if being honest IS your message. Being yourself takes a lot less work than trying to hone some kind of perfect image.

  2. I suppose this is why people maintain multiple blogs, to keep the various aspects of their interactions separate. It's a quest for control, which is, I suppose, different than a quest for perfection.

  3. It's ironic, you know, because while there are writers who work hard to look "good" online, there are a lot of readers out there who don't want to know anyway. I got into an argument (I can't remember if this was something you posted or if I saw it in a FB or Twitter convo and dived in) with someone who said if she knew the people who wrote her books as people she couldn't enjoy the books -- presumably she built up her own idea of what they looked like or were, and finding out that the SF novel about the dashing hero was written by an overweight guy with a combover was more than she could handle. Or something like that.

    I try hard not to unload my (often) bad days on people and when I give in to the impulse I tend to go back and wipe it out -- I don't want to whinge. Otherwise, I am offline who I am online. My attitude is "take me or leave me". (You may believe that mock bravado or not, as you like.)


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