On a recent internet exploration about Heidegger, I came across the fascinating blog Philosophy for Change by Dr Tim Raynor. Authenticity and social media, as well as the impact of technology, are all topics Tim covers in his blog. In one of the comment strings from his entry on Gift Economies and Gift Culture, Tim proposes that certain types of social media encourage people to participate as whole individuals (Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn for example), in essence a copy of the whole person we are offline. Other services, such as Twitter, allow people to participate as “dividuals”:
“Facebook is set up to enable us to reconstitute our personal identity online. For this reason, I find it limiting, almost stifling, in that I feel I am compelled by the system to act out a ‘real world’ identity that has no place or real purchase in the virtual medium. Twitter I find more satisfying, since it leaves open the question of identity. One can perform one’s familiar identity or try to articulate a persona-in-the-process-of-becoming. One can choose anonymity or one can act out a fantasy…
“I would suggest that we participate on Twitter as ‘dividuals’ – ‘part persons’, if you like. The interesting thing is that people seem to select that part of their person that has the greatest value and meaning for them. If a person is a set of vectors directed toward the future, Twitter enables us to single out the leading vectors and develop them in isolation from the others.”
One indisputable take away is the development of the “dividual” concept. Although this concept is a side note in a larger conversation about the self online, it is undeniable. Mechanisms like Twitter allow us to develop a specific part of ourselves and only that part: Twitter’s brevity and anonymity (if desired) encourages dividuation, not individuation.
However, Google+, LinkedIn and Facebook have, as an underlying vision, that people who join do so with genuine identities. There are several ways they ensure this. First, it is easier to find someone and link to them if they use verifiable information: name, age, location, schools attended, employment and so on. Secondly, they regularly look fo signs that the user is not a genuine person and attempt to rid their service of those “imitation people” inasmuch as they can do so. Their (advertising) business model is more viable if everyone on Facebook equals a genuine person in the offline world, and if the details about their identity are disclosed accurately. Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn want individuals, not dividuals. Twitter, on the other hand, does not care. You can have several feeds set up, and be tweeting and retweeting about each of those individual interests simultaneously.
The individual, the branded individual and the individual brand
Previous posts on this blog have addressed the positive bias in individual Facebook engagement. In other words, when people put up positive posts they receive more response, engagement and affirmation from their social media audience than if they post neutral or negative posts.
This positive bias puts me in mind of the cultural norm of acting like you are happy at a party, even if you are, at that moment, not particularly happy. As someone told me once, “Misery loves company, but company hates misery.”
This pressure to be happy, self-fulfilled and becoming the best version of ourselves is one that has been argued as being a first world problem. This pressure, or social anxiety, is one that has been the discussion of philosophers, and psychologists for decades. Marketers have been leveraging this kind of anxiety–and still do– to sell everything from weight loss programs to consumer goods to, well, participation on social media networks.
People who use social media as a personal branding exercise are seeking affirmation, engagement, and association–and therefore must bow to the social pressures within their networks to act in a way that will allow them to develop their optimal networked audience. That usually means coming across as happy, self-fulfilled, expert and may even extend to looking a particular way in their photos.
Brands who use social media to extend their customer engagement or sell online also seek to optimise their audience reach. They default to positive bias (very few businesses can get away with being rude or grumpy to customers). Their workers are engaged in emotional labour, especially those at the front line who engage with customers. This develops a kind of organisation-wide, or maybe even industry-wide, social pressure felt by the individuals within a firm to both their customers and non-customers.
One of the interesting ways this is playing out at the moment is in an industry not known for its friendliness: academia. Social media has let loose the ability to gripe and explore the various ways in which the academic system does not lead to happiness. So much so that the new Academic Kindness blog stands out in stark relief to other, more popular posts about academic life. Interestingly, as higher education websites become even more marketing savvy and attempt to push their media presences toward a positive bias, there is a discourse in the industry about how unhappy people in the field are. Government funding is harder to access, budgets are cut, fees go up, jobs are insecure and employment outcomes for students seem more out of reach. The disgruntled online presences are “dividual” accounts of university life, as much as the packaged, slick, positive university marketing materials are also “dividual” accounts of university life. There is an element of authenticity, and inauthenticity, in each.
One approach to this problem would be to engage in a narrative about the problem itself, letting the outside world into the internal struggle about how much to disclose and the approach toward social media anxiety. In a study discussed in an earlier blog post on this site, a blogger engaging in a seeded blog promotion activity actively discusses the ethical issues involved in accepting the product and blogging about it with his audience.
By doing this, he is letting people in on his inner world and how it manifests in his outer world. Should he accept the product? (He ends of doing so). Does that mean he has to blog positively about it (He ends up giving what he feels is a balanced perspective.) Is he flattered by the attention he is getting from the commercial company, who recognises his audience reach (He is.) Is he open to receiving more free stuff? (He is.) and so on.
He steps this out in a series of conversations with himself in his blog and conversation with others recorded on to his blog about the issues. All of this is done in the same voice and tone as in the rest of the blog. He is letting us into his world in an existential self. Heidegger would approve (I think).
If brands seek to engage in authentic behaviours, they will have to act less like brands and more like people. Although this has been attempted, and at times successfully, it is counterintuitive in the marketing world and comes at a cost: transparency may mean less “likes” and less “friends”: both metrics that online marketing managers hold dear.