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Social media is changing the way we relate to each other, and we’re still learning to navigate how our online personas are connected to our offline selves. Should our social media profiles reflect who we really are? Who we want to be? Or something in between?
I’ve been giving this a lot of thought lately, so I was very interested when I heard Maryellis Bunn, the co-founder of the Museum of Ice Cream in LA, being interviewed on the radio a few days ago.
Lulu Garcia-Navarro of Weekend Edition asked Bunn why she opened the ice cream museum. And Bunn surprised me with her answer: she talked about how millennials are looking for authentic experiences.
Not an insight that’s particularly new, but definitely something worth keeping in mind. The real surprise came a moment later when she followed up with this:
“I think we’re all looking to create content and kind of build our own personal brands, if you will, on social media and have places that are conducive to kind of elevate and show who we are as individuals. And the museum serves, I think, to do that quite well. And every room is built in mind with how do you create the best capture for photography and social?”
In the space of a few seconds, Bunn states that the museum aims to be an authentic experience, and that it’s designed to help people capture specifically social-media-friendly photos of themselves. Is this contradictory? Does it make perfect sense? What does this say about authenticity in social media?
I set off on an (authentic, virtual) expedition to find out.
What Is Authenticity?
This is a surprisingly difficult question. For something we (“we” being millennials and marketers) talk about a lot, it’s tough to come up with a good definition. Most people seem to ascribe to the idea that authenticity is a sort of congruence of one’s internal and external lives.
Or, put more simply, what you do reflects how you feel and who are you. That doesn’t seem so hard. The general consensus seems to be that authenticity comes down to not lying on social media.
But when you start talking about brands being authentic, it gets more difficult. A company can’t show you everything that’s going on behind the scenes, and it’s fairly unreasonable to expect them not to cultivate a very specific image on social media.
How does that cultivation square with authenticity?
When it comes to personal branding, the story is much the same. Personal branding is accomplished by, as our own Aaron Couch put it, reaching out, connecting, and being real. “Don’t try to come across as someone you’re not,” he advised.
But if you want to stand out on social media, you have to differentiate yourself. There are millions of people tweeting their every random thought. And to stand out from that, you need to cultivate a specific image to gain followers, boost your credibility, and meet various other social media goals.
And that’s where authenticity gets tricky.
Developing an Image
Ivan Preston, an expert on advertising, once said, in reference to authenticity, “Don’t look like you’re trying so hard.” Which is great advice on social media authenticity. If you look like you’re trying hard, people are going to think that you’ve set out to cultivate an image.
Instagram fitness celebrities are a great example. Do you think Kylan Fischer just happened to snap this photo and post it? Does the fact that she tags a sponsor affect how authentic the post looks?
Interestingly, Preston didn’t say “don’t try so hard.” He said that you shouldn’t look like you’re trying hard. Which means that he was advocating trying to develop a public image… that you’re not trying to develop a public image.
This should give you an idea of the complexity of online authenticity.
In a 2011 paper, a group of researchers defined personal branding as “capturing and promoting an individual’s strengths and uniqueness to a target audience.”
Does that mean that personal branding is incompatible with authenticity?
I asked William Arruda, an expert on personal branding and social media. He says they’re not incompatible. In fact, he says that they’re very closely related:
“My thoughts on personal branding — it is ALL about authenticity… The key is to take your authentic attributes and highlight the ones that are relevant and compelling to your target audience.
So personal branding then, is an authentic, true image of yourself. But only part of it.
Is it really authentic, then? I suppose that’s up for debate.
What Is Social Media For?
When you’re talking about social media and authenticity, a lot of it comes back to this question. And it’s a big one. We all use social media for different reasons. Some people use it to stay in touch with their friends. Others cultivate an image to further their career. Others use it for news. Many people probably don’t have much of an objective at all. And that’s cool, too.
Maybe what it means to be authentic has to do with your goals for using social media. Jordan Dansky, writing for Huffington Post, calls on us to “take social media back to it’s core: sharing your life, as it’s happening, with all the mess and beauty that comes along with it.”
That’s awesome — if your goal is to simply to share your life with people. That’s a great use of social media. But it’s not for everyone. Opening up, sharing your struggles and your successes, and generally letting people into your life, of course, can also serve a larger goal.
For example, some people with mental health issues may do this in an effort to show that mental illness doesn’t need to ruin your life. This is another goal, and another type of authenticity.
What about authenticity in business social media? Sharing the trials and tribulations of day-to-day business certainly isn’t a popular way to develop an authentic reputation. Having fun and interesting interactions helps. So does not constantly pitching your product or service. Showing real people doing real things helps, too.
Is that a totally different standard of authenticity? It seems like it to me.
Are We in an Age of Post-Authenticity?
Multiple studies have shown that millennials value authenticity. Search Engine Journal says that they want to “align themselves with an authentic cause.” We say that we value authenticity, but we also curate our social media feeds like crazy.
Is “authenticity” losing its meaning? Maybe that’s why it’s so difficult to pin down. Maybe what we’re calling authenticity is actually a number of different things.
Then again, maybe authenticity just isn’t a useful index anymore. With companies constantly trying to project an authentic image (“trying not to look like they’re trying,” Preston might say), and individuals carefully crafting their social media images, can we even talk about authenticity?
When I mentioned on Twitter that I was working on this article, a follower told me that you know authenticity when you see it. Maybe that’s as close as we’ll ever get to a good definition.
Or maybe vanity — and marketing — have overcome authenticity.
I’ve come up with more questions than answers here, but I hope this encourages you to spend some time thinking about authenticity on social media. And I’d love to hear what you think about.
What does authenticity on social media mean to you? Do you think marketing and personal branding have damaged the concept? Or am I just overthinking the whole thing? Let me know in the comments!
Image Credit: RookCreations via Shutterstock