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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