The Impossible Quest for Authenticity Online

be authentic

The question of authenticity online seems to be a quest for the impossible.

Some bloggers criticise the current state of authenticity online, stating that the “pursuit of personal branding has severely tarnished social media as a whole“. What I can’t seem to grasp is how can you decide if someone is inauthentic? What if they really are that shallow? Dark? Sarcastic? Funny?

Who decided that social media was to be uber confessional? Have I missed something?

How is online personal branding any different from real life?

What if we are high monitoring social beings who only want to put their best foot forward? Or we have a high need for social approval in real life that they amplify that online?

Ultimately, to be authentic you need to be real and true, not fake. Does that mean you have to reveal EVERYTHING?

Is a stripper more authentic than me because I wear clothes to work? Is a flasher more authentic because he reveals more of himself than you’d ever care to see? No.

Being approved as “authentic” is an impossible quest. You will never satisfy everyone’s desire to feel they really know you.

Never.

It’s not going to happen. Even if you were to post pictures of your colonoscopy online or your the ultrasound of your baby inutero there will always be the question of doubt – did it really happen?

Do you own those images? (Please note: I have NOT recommended putting images of your internal organs online. Not ever. Especially not around lunchtime).

There may even be a backlash from people asking WHY you did that.

You can never win.

Finding myself

Last week I decided to to do some basic research on perceptions.  I asked a simple question on Facebook

The results were interesting (and quite flattering actually) it made me realise that I do a good job of projecting a positive image online.

online authenticity

The breakdown

  • 33 people responded to my question
  • All were female, 19 are mothers
  • 15 I have never met in real life
  • 2 I have met once
  • 8 I have not seen in years
  • 1 is a family member
Interestingly, some of the words used would never come into my top 10 when I describe myself. Does that mean I am not true to myself? No.
We are all highly complex characters, some less than others, with multiple traits.

Do we have to put everything online?

Some say you need to be honest online. Really? Why? Honest about what? Does it add to the relationship? Perhaps. 

What if you are a liar in real life? Why shouldn’t you lie online?
What if you lie to yourself offline?
Do we really have to be transparent online? Do we have to be who we are in real life online?
We all self-censor, admittedly some more than others. For most, it’s about putting your best foot forward.
Think about CVs – as an employer I’ve been through many in recent years. I became quite good at reading between the lines. But, I never came across a single CV that stated “I have a terrible issue with procrastination” or “authority sickens me and I took part in violent protests” or “I stole this CV from LinkedIn and I have no idea how to do any of the things listed here.”
The real you evolves and changes. So, to some, you may appear two-faced, they may deem you inauthentic. Who are they to claim this?

Does revealing your dark side make you more authentic?

I don’t know. Maybe. I’ve revealed things on my other blog that have brought me closer to some in my community, some then found the similar experience too hard to deal with and disappeared. The dark side may be a part of you. I know mine does not define me so why should I have to talk about it?

Usually I don’t tell people that I am terrified of the dark, I have a fear of being alone, even for a few hours, and I used to suffer from panic attacks when I had to walk into a room full of people I didn’t know.  I developed coping strategies for a number of these fears. I’d assume an alter ego – it was still me. Just an exaggerated part of me. Is that inauthentic?

What about those who fabricated stories to establish a connection with certain readers? Yes, it does happen. Would that bother you? Michelle Garrett put forward an interesting question about how people would feel if after a period of time they realised that the blog they were following was actually fake and none of it ever existed.

Every one of us has a unique past. We are all complex individuals. Just because you may present a different persona online does not make you two-faced, inauthentic or a fake.

What do you think? Is the quest for authenticity online impossible?

Photo credit: http://www.jmorganmarketing.com/

26 Responses to The Impossible Quest for Authenticity Online

  1. Clever thoughts, Ameena.

    I recently heard an useful advise when presenting in front of an audience. Considering how big a share of your social networks you never met in person, I think it’s fair to talk about “audience” rather than “friends” or “followers”.

    Anyway, the advise sounds like this: Be personal but not private!
    Being personal means that your will blend your prof talks or field expertise with fun stories: Could be about your name, where you live, what your favorite sports team is. That dramatically improves the chances that you are being remembered.

    If you are private you will empty your brains with whatever it’s filled with, so the streams are filled with when someone from grad school is going to court against her ex-husband or… as you put it… images of guts.

    Keeping the fine line between being personal and private is the first step to being authentic. A personal voice makes you more interesting, but please keep your private stuff for yourself.

    • Thanks Joakim – sound advice. I am glad I am not alone in thinking there is a fine line between personal and private.

      Sometimes revealing the private can have it’s place but I feel it REALLY needs to be made relevant. Saying that, many do use social media as a real time journal. Each to their own but the choices we make are reflections of who we are … how could that make you untrue to yourself?

      Thanks again for stopping by!

      • I won’t put it as you are untrue to yourself. In fact, I see it as you are being über-authentic by revealing private stuff.

        But it is strange: The more the looks and surface counts in the real world, the more people feel they should share in public on online networks. The same people who share pictures of their unborn kids on Facebook think you are complete weirdo if you start a polite conversation in the bus….

  2. Hi Ameena,

    You raise an interesting question. Especially as the borders between online and offline diminish.

    Whose quest are we talking about – the individual or the collective?

    I guess it boils down to the individual. The distinction between real life and online life for some is so small as to be negligable and therefore it becomes a question of a quest for authenticity period.

    If you strive to be authentic

    Should you reveal all? Does that make you more authentic – I don’t think so. Being authentic is like being pregnant – You either are or you’re not. You don’t need to pull your vest up and reveal your belly to prove it.

    Accept that you’ll never be all things to all people – accept that you will have your detractors and just be the person you believe you are.

    Who you are will change over time, so long as you live by and present yourself in line with your core beliefs and values, whatever they are then regardless of what you reveal or conceal you will be authentic and that will shine through in your online persona as it does in “real life”.

    Have a great day,
    Alex

    • Hi Alex!

      Wow, talk about keeping me on my toes!
      I think the quest is for both the individual AND the collective.

      I love the connection to being pregnant – that is beautiful and SO true!

      We will never make EVERYONE happy, nor should we strive for that, that’s another impossible quest!

      Thank you for such a thoughtful comment!

      Hope you day rocked!

  3. Being authentic has become the new ‘cool’ a word which is abused and thrown in when nothing can really be said about a blogger’s work.
    Some of us have decided to become the Blogging police and call out others when they are being ‘un-authentic’. I find it interesting that perfect strangers decide on who is or isn’t authentic online.
    Just because you sell something doesn’t mean you are un-authentic or less social.
    My baker is a person I love talking to about the way he makes his pastries and his bread. Just because he sells me bread does it mean he is un-authentic?

    The way I see it, it’s simply impossible NOT to be authentic on or offline.

  4. Authenticity is definitely a business term du jour as John points out but it’s definitely something to aspire to online and offline. The trouble with online is that you can get carried away with a different persona (sometimes even encouraged like on 2nd Life). And you do have to filter the information you put up about yourself, nobody wants to see your dirty laundry on Instagram but they do want to see you in both a professional and social context.

    Anyway, I think I agree that its nigh on impossible to be authentic online but it’s a good yardstick and something to always bear in mind when projecting your personal brand (which we do everyday, both online and offline.)

    Good post btw Ameena!!

    • It’s true that personas can take us to places we never imagined. I have to admit sometimes I come up with subjects I WANT to write about but they don’t fit with my online personas. Annoying! I have 2 to choose from so you’d think I was good!

      I think some people love a good train wreck online. We are often voyeurs at heart. BUT I do agree in a professional context I don’t have time to be distracted by that.

      Saying that, I think that whatever you are doing online is an extension of you. It’s a tough call to remove yourself from the equation which makes me feel that even if it’s 1% – it’s you. It’s authentic. No one can take that away from you!

      Thanks for coming by Jorgen and leaving such a thoughtful comment – gave me food for thought!

  5. Hi Ameena,

    I think you may already know where I stand on the issue of authenticity. At least, I remember writing about it or maybe I only was thinking about writing about it. Anyway.

    I love the comparison to the stripper. That made me sit up and take notice. I already was paying attention, but, you know, throwing the word “stripper” into a conversation tends to heighten awareness. The colonoscopy and ultrasound references were equally good.

    I don’t think you have to be “uber confessional” in order to be authentic. Then again, I’m not uber confessional in real life, either. I don’t want everyone and their dogs to know the things that scare or hurt me. That doesn’t make me any less honest. It simply makes me human. Isn’t that authentic?

    Cheers! (I think I’ve spent too much time with Kaarina and that Danny fellow. I keep saying “cheers.”)

    • Hey Erin,

      Yes, I do know where you stand on the question of authenticity!

      Thanks for pointing out that I need to talk about strippers and colonoscopies! I certainly hope Klout doesn’t pick up on those keywords!

      If you are the confessional type then go for it but keep it relevant. Being out there and confessional for the sake of attention annoys me. I’m like you – I tend to play my personal cards close to my chest. That’s how I am.

      Thanks for coming by!

  6. Stripper? Did you say stripper?? 🙂

    Just kidding bud. I thought this was one of your best reads to date. Love this blurb:

    Being approved as “authentic” is an impossible quest. You will never satisfy everyone’s desire to feel they really know you.

    Never.

    Amen to that girl. The longer I’m online, the more I realize this:

    *The more successful you are, the more others will want to label you to suite their needs*

    So forget’em I say and go after your goals like there’s no tomorrow…

    At least that’s how I roll 😉

    Have a great week Ameena!! And thanks for the mention,

    Marcus

    • Hey Marcus!

      I think talking about strippers seemed to grab a few people’s attention!

      You are right – get your head down, do what you need to do and forget those who question you!

      Thanks for coming over!

  7. I think because there’s no way to know most online personalities face to face the online culture has developed it’s own set of values and cultural norms that might be slightly different to Real Time norms and values.

    We like to do business with people face to face who we know are genuine, who are going to be honest and consistent. But we accept that not everyone will be this all the time so we rely on our own instincts, our observance of body language, of the way we see them interact with others etc. We can’t do that online and so we put a lot more weight on authenticity and have created a social norm in the online culture of Authenticity is Good, Fake is Evil in order to control or police (not too harsh a word, I don’t think) our online community. It’s what all communities have done for as long as there have been communities–we have created social norms in order to build an environment that we can work in. Those social norms of course became laws eventually.

    And bloggers–even those who don’t do it for money, are also policed this way by the rest of the community because they are part of the community. A social contract is set up between reader and writer and no one likes to feel ‘tricked’. From the comments on the post you referred to on my blog it would appear that most people would be angry to discover the blog they were following was fake, but if they knew from the beginning that it was a fiction, they wouldn’t mind at all–because they entered into the social contract with the full knowledge.

    And I don’t think you need to Tell All in order to be authentic–I agree completely with you on that. I would lose most of my followers if I told all (how boring my blog would be!) and I wouldn’t want to Read All on other people’s blogs–I am very pleased people censure their lives before sitting down to compose a blog post!

    Anyway. Phew! I’m almost outta breath with this long winded comment. Times like these I wish it were easier to just open a bottle of wine and let the discussion flow sitting round a table instead of typing away on my laptop! You already know this is a pet subject of mine–I find human behaviour so fascinating and the development of this new world online is really interesting to watch!

    Thanks for the mention, I am really, really pleased it was part of your inspiration for this post. It’s nice to know when something you’ve written makes people think. 🙂

  8. Some of the best observations on the subject of authenticity, IMO, come from Tamsen Snynder (@tamadear on Twitter). You can’t flip a switch and be ‘authentic’. The reality that you portray in this moment, in this post or elsewhere -that’s the authentic you. Authenticity is a state of being, the rules that you follow, the core values you hold expressed through action, the way you relate to others – as experienced by others.

  9. Hi Ameena,

    Too bad that I’m not on Facebook that often, or you would have received at least one answer from a man, and it would have been an answered you would have really loved 🙂

    I absolutely agree with you when it comes to authenticity online. It’s an impossible quest. To me it’s authentic as long as it feels authentic. I don’t really know if your picture is who you really are, and you don’t know if my picture is 15 years old. But, because we interact, and we keep “chatting” I understand who you are. So to me, the picture is you, no matter if it’s really you (if that makes any sense at all).

    What I’m trying to say is that what’s authentic to me is what feels like authentic. No research involved.

      • I think what you did was awesome, but that it’s hard to define authenticity. I just listened to a discussion about Lady Gaga being authentic or not. She has told the journalist that she is testing what will make her more famous. And she continues to do what’ll make her more famous. According to the journalist she’s still authentic, because she’s not hiding what she’s doing, even though who she appears as and what she’s doing is not really her 🙂

  10. Wow, thought provoking. As this is the 20th post I have read on the plane in the past couple hours will have to pause to think

    I would have to say that you probably cannot achieve the authenticity you talk about in the post. I would like to try to achieve trustworthiness and have people know that I am like everyone else: make mistakes and some very terrible but I hold myself accountable.

    There are a couple of bloggers I follow: The Redhead writing and TMFP. One of the two wrote about your real personality vs your online persona. This was another good example of how they used their persona to attract their followers. I liked both of these women’s personas surprisingly. They are different to mine. Sorry can’t remember which woman it was… even just had a look through their sites.

    You rock as Ameena the marketer!

  11. Mature, self-actualized people who are psychologically healthy and secure are usually genuine online.

    Dysfunctional individuals, particularly those lacking empathy, will try on personas and care little about the real people out there.

    My ex was a talented fraud online and in reality till his facade cracked to show cobwebs hanging in empty darkness. Ego and fear keep him groping in, and publishing to, space.

  12. Great post Ameena, I really like you arguments and thoughts on the subject, specially the “What if you are a liar in real life? Why shouldn’t you lie online?”

    Like in real life, sometimes you just get the feeling that someone is pulling off a lie online, and it really is sad to see specially in the marketing business where I work.

    Bookmarked your site 🙂

Leave a reply