Being a researcher working in the social media space, I am often asked if online behavior is genuine and to what extent people accurately represent their “real” selves online. Since the advent of the Internet, scholars like Sherry Turkle and novelists like William Gibson, have drawn compelling pictures of how what we think of as “self” is really a compilation of multiple personas or avatars coexisting both on- and off-line. A decade ago this multiplicity was interpreted as discrete role-playing; a way to experiment in a pretend world. These days, the boundaries between real and fake, virtual and actual, are blurry and perhaps even immaterial.
The stumbling block for marketers is that any one person may be best understood, not in static terms, but as a constellation of on- and off-line personas, with each one being equally “real” yet also inherently incomplete. Once more, consumers can rapid-cycle through—or even simultaneously engage in—multiple personas, which makes it challenging to definitively characterize or predict what a person will do across situations.
For example, an old friend of mine recently explained to me that she had just joined Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter to become savvy about social media, which was a requirement for her new job. Referencing her Blackberry she asked me:
“What can I tweet about that would be innocuous and engaging?”
Her dilemma—what to write about publically, in 140 characters or less, that would entice followers yet preserve some measure of privacy—is one we all share. A recent Pew Internet study indicates 51% of adults maintain more than two profiles on social networks; so on average we broadcast at least two virtual versions of ourselves. Some profiles may be designed for consumption by colleagues, while others are targeted towards friends and family. Transparency and authenticity are critical for both audiences—they are what lend social media its credibility and appeal—yet both are cases of consumer turned marketer; in projecting self we also promote self. And while some of us choose to compartmentalize our online personas (e.g., keeping two Twitter accounts—one for work and one for play), others seamlessly integrate public and private versions of self (Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh is a good example of this).
This self projection begs the question: Separate or seamless, where does the real “me” reside?
Even those paragons of Twitter who seem to be savvy, transparent, authentic, relevant, approachable, professional, and concise all at once have some version of self that is private. If companies want consumers to privilege them with their most private selves, then they need to devise ways of being with consumers in a way that is respectful and commensurately “real.” Private online communities are one way to do that: they are protected and safe environments, they allow for flexible and ongoing relationships to develop organically, they are intimate by design, and—if done well—they are robust enough to support a great diversity of human experience.