“Authenticity” in the Digital Age

Reading Time: 5 minutes

There’s a cardinal rule to effective digital writing. You have to write for attention first, then add whatever message you might have. Lead with value, lead with insights, and start with the outcome.

That’s how writing for social media works right now, and it begs the question: is this still authentic self-presentation? Cory Zue pondered the slow death of authenticity in an attention economy, and he has a point: the way we communicate online isn’t how we approach real-life interactions.

Things have changed.

And what it means to be authentic has changed, too.

Authenticity isn’t very clear for most people using social media today. You can be as authentic as you want, but if no one reads it, it has no impact. So, how impactful can authenticity even be? And can being “overly authentic” actually prevent you from making an impact?

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The Mirror

Authenticity, at first glance, sounds like something very internal. An identity freely and honestly shared from the inside out. But as social beings, our authenticity is determined by the people who either recognize it or deem it lacking. What is authentic to them is mirrored back into our self-perception.

Coming to terms with being authentic online starts with the expectations of the people in front of which we place ourselves. Most people go to social media looking for meaningful, relatable content. This might be for entertainment, to learn something, or to feel some kind of bond with other people. These interactions happen around content: tweets, videos, articles, messages.

And there is a lot of content out there.

There was a time when gatekeepers ensured the quality of what anyone would get to see, but that’s not the case anymore. Editors still exist in publishing, but they’re not the only source of written information any more. The shelves of the book store and the pages of the magazines we read have been supplanted by the algorithmic feeds of YouTube and Twitter.

Access to creators is now direct, and there’s no arbiter for quality. Well, no external arbiter.

The actual gatekeeper for quality is now the consumer. We have to filter information ourselves. For very single piece of content. Trust has shifted from the gatekeeper to the consumer. If we don’t trust the content, we won’t consume it.

So, to build trust on an honest foundation means connecting with people’s shifting expectations of what it means to be trustworthy. Your authentic representation from five years ago might not align with your audience today. Back in the day, people valued professional distance and an aura of sophisticated smartness. Now, people want to see the real person behind the business. What makes you relatable is flexible now – a flexible authenticity.

Flexible Authenticity!?

Is flexible authenticity good or bad? Is it even authentic? Sounds like acting or manipulation!

It’s time to rethink self-presentation at scale. The nuanced levels of connection we have in the physical world do not exist in a world of thousands and millions. Dunbar’s number of around 150 people who you can realistically forge deep bonds with is quickly reached when you put effort into building an online audience.

The new reality of operating in virtual environments redefines what authentic behavior is, what it can be, and what it can effectively do for you.

You have to look at who “you” are online through a pragmatic lens. It’s an inevitable consequence of scale and diversity in thought and experiences: you can’t be a unique person to everyone in your virtual audience. At some point, the clear lines we have with friends and families will start blurring.

Authenticity online is a constant experimentation with how others perceive you as authentic. In a way, authenticity becomes an externalized projection of other people’s expectations.

You lean into their perception of you.

Feels like cheating, right?

Well, let’s experiment with Dunbar’s number and see what happens.

Imagine if you could have strong relationships with 500 people. That would be great for you as a creator. You could connect deeply with a sizable audience. But even then, you might not be in the top 500 of the people your followers want to interact with. Between celebrities, their social peers, relatives, and work relationships, you might not rank. So, even with a higher capacity on your end, the strength of your relationship with them would be just as limited. And with a growing social following, you’ll find that no matter how many people you could be your true real-world self with, you will eventually scale out of that — and it’s their limitation that prevents that deep bond.

People will see you in a simple way that doesn’t fully represent your true self.

And here’s why that matters: to them, authenticity happens when you live up to their simplified idea of you. If you do something outside of this, they may see it as inauthentic, even if it’s true to who you are. And that, ironically, damages your relationship with them.

Dress Up (or Rather: Intentional Fabrication)

To deal with this, many people play it safe by projecting a strong persona that’s easy to live up to. They might choose an extreme identity, like always being positive or a reliably funny troll. This makes it easier for them to meet expectations and avoid disappointing others. The people who follow them for this clear-cut persona get what they expect.

People often become caricatures of themselves to fit into these personas. This is the challenge of authenticity at scale.

There’s no perfect solution, but one approach is to choose an idealized version of yourself that has a positive impact on others and is easy for you to live up to.

Choose Your Adventure

I’ve done that, and I am doing this every day. I choose to be the kindest person around. I celebrate the success of others, commiserate with them when things go awry, and I give more than I take.

I make this the role that I want to project because it’s a deeply seated core behavior of mine. If you meet me in the real world, you’ll find a nuanced version of this. A deeper, more attentive version. But, at its root, the very same thing.

By picking this persona, I can better navigate relationships at scale, whether they’re parasocial or real-life connections beyond Dunbar’s number. It’s one way to cope with the challenges of maintaining authenticity in today’s connected world.

So, choose a collection of things that you can and want to live up to when you’re presenting yourself online. And consistently show up as that person. You’ll find that authenticity is a consequence, not a prerequisite.

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