The whole “individual” vs. just part of a “dividual” in social media branding

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.”

Take Aways
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.

Existential Authenticity
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.

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Authenticity in a Terrible Tweet

Generally these posts will be about articles on authenticity. However, an incident occurred on Twitter recently that is just crying out for authenticity analysis.

The Incident
Geoffrey Miller, a tenured professor in the USA, recently tweeted to prospective PhD students “Dear obese PhD applicants: If you don’t have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won’t have the willpower to do a dissertation #truth“. Predictably, the internet world freaked out. Miller then did a few things:

First, he deleted the tweet.

Then he apologised.

Then, when the scrutiny did not abate, he claimed the tweet was part of a research project. However neither of the institutions he works for indicated he had applied for ethics for such a project. This meant that either he was conducting research not sanctioned by his institutions (unlikely) or he was making that up as an excuse (lying, in other words).

Then a completely unrelated study found that if you are obese, especially if you are a woman, you are less likely to be selected for postgraduate study, due to a bias on behalf of those performing candidate selection.

For those of us interested in authenticity, this is an interesting situation. I don’t know Miller, but I am guessing his tweet was authentic. I believe him when he indicated that opinion, and there is no evidence to the contrary. In fact, in his apology, he apologised for saying it–not for thinking it.

Moreover, the subsequent study demonstrated that not only is Miller authentic about his own opinion, he likely gave voice to opinions held by others (at least on some PhD admissions boards).

So was authenticity s good thing in this case?

The case analysed through 360da
Let’s run through this case quickly on a 360da grid:

Objective: Miller tweeted his own opinion under his own name, and represented himself accurately as far as we can see.

Constructive: Miller did not take into account the number of people who would see and then react to his tweet. If this isn’t the reaction he was looking for (and it doesn’t seem to be) then he made a serious misstep. However, the message was authentic, he was authentic when he was saying it and…the audience received it in an authentic way. So his authenticity on this note was 100%; the wrong note was his expectation that people agree with him.

Commercial: Miller was true to himself. Although his tweet didn’t do much for him from a public relations perspective; he knows who he is and potentially just attracted a whole bunch of carb-hating prospective grad students his way.

Existential: His inauthentic move was to apologise and delete the tweet; he would have seemed like a more authentic person if he admitted it was badly worded but it was his perspective as an evolutionary psychologist (and then provided research demonstrating his reasons for thinking it). Instead he was forced by social forces to retract his comment. Giving in to those forces is an inauthentic move.

The verdict
Miller said what he genuinely thought; then tried to backtrack which came across as grossly inauthentic. Then it was revealed that others share his view–they just don’t talk about it (they might not even be aware they share his view). Transparency is a big part of authenticity, so Miller gets points for that.

What is interesting about this case is that his authenticity is, to many, socially repulsive. It is not socially acceptable in a lot of cultures to declare that fat people are less worthy of something than thin people. So although his comments are authentic, this case doesn’t make many look on Miller more positively.

The institutions he represents attempt to maintain the perception of an intellectual meritocracy: where students earn their place through academic rigour. Not eating carbs is not considered academic rigour. And although Miller might have a large say in who ends up being his students, his institution does too. So his perspective as a staff member of a university was not authentic to his employer. And it angered them.

Moreover, rather than put forward the scientific evidence to support his view, he backtracked. This will have lost those (silent) people out there that agree with his point of view. It also made him come across as someone who uses his academic credentials to give his opinion, rather than take an evidence-based approach to his views.

The take away
First, and most obviously, understand the medium one uses to broadcast a message. There is a cautionary tale here for those of us who forget that the internet=the whole world. The whole world=people who don’t agree with you.

Secondly, be prepared to support your view authentically, especially if it is a controversial view.

Thirdly, if you represent an organisation when you say something, that organisation pays you and you wish to continue to be paid, it is important to take into consideration the way that organisation sees itself and wishes to have the public see it.

From a marketing perspective, it is OK to be controversial. It is one of the ways that we make our product/brand stand out. However, doing it strategically, authentically and unapologetically is an approach that Miller, and the rest of us, can learn from.