the art of authenticity and self-disclosure in social media: do you need to get down + dirty?




“None of us are authentic,” argues Chris Brogan, “because we all filter.”

But is that what it requires to be authentic? A total lack of filter?

Do you have to reveal deep personal secrets – like the time your parents caught you masturbating and pretty much traumatized you for life, or that nasty little DUI from four years ago, or that inconvenient sexual fascination with your sister’s husband, or the fact that you don’t really like your kids, or that tendency to shoplift things just because you can, or that time you ‘accidentally’ flashed your neighbor (twice), or the secret wish that your ailing relative would just hurry up and die already…?

What if you don’t have any deep dark secrets – should you make some up?

Just how much of yourself should you reveal?

Oh, and by the way, why should anybody care?

When we say we want the authentic, we mean we want the real and the true. We don’t want a copy or an imitation or a lie. But ‘the real’ – ‘my real’ — has two levels to it: the ‘fact’ of it (at least according to me) and my presentation/ your perception of it.

Which is why I like this definition of authentic: something that is worthy of belief.


The irony behind Chris Brogan’s post is that he is arguably one of the most authentic presences online. He is also one of the most successful.

This is not a coincidence.

And if you define charisma as ‘the ability to inspire and influence a large devoted following’ he’s also one of the most charismatic.

This is not a coincidence either.

He isn’t confessional, but he is – to me and many many others – worthy of belief, which is why we keep returning to his highly-ranked blog.


For your presence to be authentic, everything must align: your voice, your message, your values, your style of communication.

When we deal with each other face-to-face, only a small part of our communication happens verbally. The rest is transmitted through tone, expression and body language. If you say one thing but your body language says another, there is a disconnect. Our instinct is to believe the body language, not the words, so we tag you as insincere and inwardly close ourselves off to you.

Online, all I have is your voice. To spend time with someone’s blog is to spend time with someone’s voice, to develop a relationship with the sense of personality or identity that I construct around that voice.

The most ‘authentic’ voices instill within me a sense of confidence – a sense of belief – that who you seem to be online and who you are offline are so damn close as to be practically inseparable. Even though I don’t know you, I still feel like I know you – not in all ways, certainly, but in the ways that are relevant to me and my reasons for reading you in the first place.


We don’t establish honesty with the positive things we say about ourselves.

People have a kneejerk skepticism to those kinds of statements (after all, if you really were that thing in the first place, why would you have to tell me)?

Some of us might have learned that people even tend to be the exact opposite of whatever they work to sell themselves as (a self-declared ‘family man’ turns out to have a thing for call girls, Ecstasy and cocaine; a man who bills himself as ‘good, kind, does the right thing’ reveals himself as ruthless, cold and self-serving; a woman who always says ‘trust me’ should never, ever be trusted).

This is why the disclosure of something personal can be so powerful: not because of what you’re telling, but showing.

You are showing yourself as open and honest.

You are opening up your inner life to me, so that I might recognize myself in it, and open up my life to you.

A connection is made that has nothing to do with selling anything, whether it’s a product or a service or a pretty image of yourself.

I started to trust Chris Brogan, for example, when he conveyed through his tweets one morning that some of his ‘haters’ – and you’re not anybody on the ‘Net until you’ve got some – were getting to him. He was annoyed and frustrated and maybe even a little bit hurt. It’s not like he spilled his guts, or any details. But what came through was a sense of him being human: vulnerable, like we all are, which lowers our guard and draws us closer.


The most charismatic people show us who they really are and what they really think in ways that are relevant to us.

Oprah tells us about her abusive childhood within a context of other people talking about pain and trauma and overcoming adversity. That’s the conversation she’s having with us, and she makes it all the more powerful by making herself part of it.

We want to know.

Simon Cowell tells the would-be singers on American Idol – and by extension us – what he really thinks of them. He doesn’t try to look out for their feelings or perpetuate their (often unfortunate, sometimes even bizarre) illusions about themselves. He resonates with us because we’re thinking the same things even if few would risk stating them so bluntly. And within the context of his show – a talent show – and given who he is – a music executive – his disclosure is relevant and appropriate.

We want to know.

Kelly Diels is one of the most authentic bloggers out there. She tells us heartfelt stories about her life – she practically owns the word ‘heartfelt’ – that relate to the themes of her blog: sex, money and meaning, right there in the tagline. If we weren’t interested in these things, we wouldn’t be reading her blog.

We want to know.

An authentic presence is a connected presence. It is in communication with you rather than at you. It is receiving and responding. It is tuned in to you enough to recognize your needs and what you might not even know you want to know (until you know it). It has something to say and a reason for saying it.

A presence that didn’t know how and when to filter (and, thus, to shape its own material), that’s merely in love with its own voice, would qualify as narcissistic – so self-involved that he or she is no longer fully joined to reality. In those circumstances, I’m not sure ‘authentic’ is even possible.

You don’t need to show me all your skeletons.

But you might need to show me some glimpses, to open up the channel between us and let in the conversation we need to be having.

Are you authentic?

Are you worthy of belief?

Who else is worthy of belief?

Let me know in the comments below.

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Aug 7, 2011

16 comments · Add Yours

I always used to say on my blog, “This is as true as I can make it. I don’t know if it matters.” The key is, as true – and only as true – as I can make it. So yes, I hope, authentic. But not, as you point out, confessional.


Adore this, Justine. Thank you. I’ve often vacillated at the point of pressing publish on my posts: “is this an emotional striptease, or an authentic relevant/important teachable moment”. Am I authentic? I damned well hope so…it’s a core value of mine. Am I worthy of belief? Ditto. I believe you because I’ve always trusted your authenticity. Trust = another core value of mine.


Justine, My friend told me the other day that she finds it refreshing to read my blog, she said I am straight to the point, no humming and hawing. <-her words. I hadn't gotten any feedback like that yet on my new site and it confirmed that I am making an impact with my personal authenticity. I value honesty and it took some to learn to realize that when someone wants to know your story its ok to keep it short and sweet, and for those who want more details they will ask and then you can share it with them.


Your post really hit home for me. The exact reason that I read blogs is that I Want to Know stuff from People I Believe.

Thanks for just saying it.


Given the crazy in my personal life lately, I’ve become very aware of self-disclosure, the story we tell ourselves, the stories we tell others, and all their intersections. I’ve always been an oversharer; my mother was one of those people who would tell anybody anything.

There are lots of reasons to confess things, and that’s what most fascinates me. We could be selling something – often, *how* we share something is more important than what we’re sharing; we are trying to elicit a certain response from our audience. (See anyone with a victim complex, myself sometimes included.) I know I’ve disconnected myself from certain traumas enough I can tell anyone about them without it bothering me – I crave the connection that comes from the sharing more than the response itself.

Conversely, sometimes it is the response I’m looking for – validation. I need to know my experience, or my own response to it, is okay. There’s a lack of self-trust coming through in that situation. I need your response to feel better about my own somehow. Or, sharing something uncorks me and acts as catharsis.

You’ll note these motivations are purely about me. In none of these instances is the motivation for telling you something “because you should know,” and that’s why I said “ouch” on twitter. Granted, these aren’t the only reasons for oversharing, and I’m just as likely to be sharing because I want to engage you in a discussion on whatever it is I’m sharing – the “we want to know” – which is a part of “the stories we tell others” I mentioned. Because even an oversharer chooses to whom to disclose, and when, and if we do it consciously because we are seeking that connection or because we think we can learn from you or your answer is worth hearing, then maybe it’s not blind oversharing or (something I fear) narcissism.

Sorry for the book – I do believe I’ll extrapolate this comment on my blog tomorrow. I haven’t even gotten to authenticity! :)


God, I love your posts.

Hope Clark


Kelly Diels helped me to get a place where I felt brave enough to write from my heart. Am I authentic? You tell me. What I do know is that the days that I find myself sharing an experience that touched my heart are the days that I get the strongest responses to my posts. Thanks Justine. Always enjoy your posts.


Thanks Justine. Another great badass creative post from you!

My writing involves revealing very personal stuff too… and last weekend my mother said to me “you’re very revealing on your blog… aren’t you worried what someone’s going to think one day when you go for a job?”

And I thought about it and said, “any job that had a problem with the kind of person I am, and the kind of stuff I write is not a job I’d take.”

I wasn’t being stroppy or precious, I’d never said anything like that *out loud* before… but sharing my experience of being childfree-by-circumstance in a baby-crazy world is what I do. I say stuff that allows other women to know that they’re not alone, not going crazy. It’s the best job in the world!

Love your stuff Justine. You shine.

Rock on! Jody x


Love this post – it resonates very much with a post that I recently did on vulnerability and trust


Unfortunately, I’m as phony as a three dollar bill.


While I do blog from my core and believe in what I have to say, I don’t make alot of personal connections in them. I have only interjected a couple of side notes here and there. Will definitely be working on this personalization a bit. Thank you for an informative post.


Thank you. I am using your post to spark conversation on my LJ. You always give me the best food for thought.


ha ha Jeff, that was so damn funny I had to put my phone down and go get the computer just so I could comment. Now THAT was authentic.


This is a fascinating post – thank you. I’m struggling with the line between self-disclosure and personal blogging and self-protection, and I often sway wildly from one to the other in my writing and online activity. I have that impulse to share and connect but it’s paralleled by a fear of what others might do with that information. It’s a tricky balance.


@Lisa Me too. Although I don’t mean to infuse ‘confessional’ with a negative quality — I think confessional writing can be great writing. You just have to keep in mind a maxim a friend and I would remind each other in college: “Just because it happened to you doesn’t make it interesting.” You have to be able to make it interesting.

@Tanya I love that phrase ’emotional striptease’….Someone once said to me that you should always be “a little afraid” when you press Publish, because that edge of fear means you’ve “gone there”; there’s no good writing without risk. I’d rather risk some ‘striptease’ than disappearing inside layers of baggy clothing, if you know what I mean.

@Jess Corra Great points in your comment, thanks. What stands out for me is your emphasis on the connection we find through sharing…opening those doors on our inner lives so connections can be made. And that’s an interesting point you made about validation — it also seems like a very female thing to do, something we’re trained in early — that whole quest to constantly find validation from outside ourselves. I don’t think that’s narcissistic (since narcissists don’t doubt themselves like that, because they’re perfect, and the fault is with everybody else) but maybe neurotic at times, and also dangerous (because of how it makes you so vulnerable and susceptible to another’s agenda) and often doomed to failure (since the only real validation can come from within, yadda yadda).

At the same time, we rely on how others mirror us and our experiences back to ourselves, *especially* when we’re so dissociated that the traumatic or the abusive feels so normal that it doesn’t strike us as anything out of the ordinary (and so we continue to let the situation perpetuate itself, or we don’t seek the help we need, etc.)….

Maybe ‘oversharing’ is when we open that door to our inner life in a way that’s too intense for another person to handle, which is subjective and in the eye of the beholder. Which means you have to be tuned into the moment and the needs of the other person…Or maybe ‘oversharing’ is when we attempt to define the other person’s experience of our experience? We talk about teachable moments, but meaning always tends to escape its container, take on a size and shape we didn’t expect, and can’t control…Maybe oversharing has to do with the attempt to extract value instead of giving value, like you said, or maybe it has to do with sentiment and melodrama and excess…?


@Paul Marshall “Am I authentic? You tell me.” Spoken with the confidence and authority of someone who doesn’t doubt himself on this. Did you take Kelly Diels’ course in heartfelt blog posts? Would love to hear about that, I think she’s awesome.

@Jody Day The world needs your blog. Period. I’m so glad you’re writing about that. And I would think that the employer you want to work for would admire your, to put it bluntly, big ladyballs, and maybe even seek you out because of them….One thing about your blog is that it really does become a testament to who you are (as opposed to who someone else might be saying you are), and I think that’s a good thing — builds trust and credibility — unless of course you’re a jackass. Besides, life is so big, and there is so much of it, that there’s rarely any need to publish stuff so edgy and controversial it renders you generally unemployable (although my god I would love to read a blog like that!).


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