From the Digital to Analog: a Study of Authenticity on the Web

Thoughts on identity, authenticity, and social translucence

Photo by Robbie Jones http://www.robbie.nyc/

In 2014, I began meeting more and more Twitter friends in real life.

Why? I get a kick out of getting to know someone’s online persona and testing my hypothesis about them in real life. The online to offline translation is similar to going from a two-dimensional representation of someone to a fully fleshed out multi-faceted model. The behavioral scientist in me enjoys running social experiments in which I am the subject. (Yes, it can be dangerous and no, there are no control groups in life.) I set out to investigate “Does the online identity translate to offline?” by meeting a lot of Twitter friends in person.

The ultimate test of an online friendship is the first IRL (in real life) or AFK (away from keyboard) meeting. I always show up to the first rendezvous, brimming with curiosity, excitement, and hope. I usually try meeting people around the same time of day in the same location (Sightglass on Folsom) in an attempt to control the test environment. All other variables are constantly changing (your mood, ambient noise, stress level etc). After all, no social experiment can be conducted in a vacuum.

I hypothesized three buckets of online to offline interactions:

  1. People who better express themselves online —He/she seems more funny, expressive, thoughtful, witty, and extroverted on the interwebz. It’s not that the physical person is a lesser version of the digital persona. Both are real. One is physical and the other mediated by a screen. The offline person just better expresses himself/herself via the web and in writing. That is okay. American society has primed us to favor the loud, extroverted, and outgoing personalities, which is an unfortunate bias. One of my best online friends prefers writing for 4–5 hours a day and interacting with people for 1 hour. She is one of the most thoughtful and kind people I know.
  2. People who better express themselves offline — Their online existence does not do justice for their awesomeness, or they have very little online presence to make projections. I found 80% of the people I met fall into this bucket. Twitter is just a vehicle for their awesome personality. Meeting them for the first time reveals many delightful observations: their laugh is more of a deep bellow, they twist their hair when talking about themselves, and they giggle sheepishly when complimented.
  3. People who are the same online and offline — I am always surprised by this bunch. They neither fall into the online nor offline persona. These are people who are wonderful online and manifest in the same exact way offline. There is no discrepancy. To date, I have only met one person like this. Mack seems to be just as smart, irreverent, and goofy online and offline.

With this experiment, I hoped I could extract some kind of principle, natural law, or philosophy about online to offline identities. But I couldn’t. We are complex creatures who do not fit neatly into any social observations or buckets. We are so much bigger than the sum of our likes, tweets, and ‘grams on the internet. Instead, I started asking myself:

What is authenticity on the web?

This question stumped me. As I start growing my identity on the web and sharing my thoughts via writing, I face a conundrum: how do you maintain your authenticity as you gain more of a following, presence, and clout? At what point does your authentic self and true voice become a caricature of itself?

I experienced the crisis of authenticity on the web through the Ethan-Bo story. As the narrative got bigger, I felt the invisible pressure from my followers to write about the digital love story, in order to feed into their curiosities, and move the story forward. This invisible “followers force” influences us to act in ways that are not aligned with our true selves. Thoughts are matter. Your followers’ expectations, desires, and thoughts subconsciously influence your own behavior.

The followers’ presence changing our own online behavior embody the characteristics of Social Translucence.

In a recent chat with my Twitter to IRL friend, Julie Logan, we shared our concerns about social translucence rewarding the wrong behaviors.

Social translucence is a lens to evaluate platforms on the kinds of signals and rewards that support online to offline interactions. In laymen’s terms, it’s a way for us to break down online interaction into building blocks of social interaction. This is a framework for understanding why social media platforms succeed.

Social translucence looks at principles in the physical world that can be transposed into the digital world. A metaphor for social translucence is a glass window on door, which solves the design problem of people slamming doors too quickly on incoming and outgoing traffic. The glass window fosters visible interactions because you can see if someone is coming to open the door. The glass window also supports awareness of others which governs our social behavior. And finally, the glass window holds others accountable for their actions. (I know that you know I was there to open the door.) The glass window in the door embodies the three properties of social translucence: visibility, awareness, and accountability.

The glass window is open for us on the web.

Aware of the glass window, I worry a lot about how I will change on the web and how the web will change me.

In my conversation with Julie, we discovered what bothers us about online interactions is that they don’t always match with the right offline interaction. Our brain releases dopamine, a little neurochemical jolt, from getting a reward. Whenever you see a like, comment, or favorite, your brain releases dopamine, which reinforces you for generating some content. The little dopamine hits we get align with the social translucence model but not always with the greater offline world. We may be rewarded online for behavior that disconnects us from the greater physical and social context. Case in point: selfies at Auschwitz. Selfies become the reward now instead of the actual act of making a deep connection with the place where you take a selfie. A selfie is a fast and cheap way to more likes, more dopamine. By posting a selfie, the internet rewards you for your existence.

Little dopamine hits from a single “like” or “favorite” may be a tradeoff for deep lasting connection. We forget the whole point of online existence is to facilitate offline interaction. We end up pursuing the small dopamine hits instead of developing deeper relationships offline.

So what to do?

We need to start thinking about building social platforms that transcend beyond likes, comments, and cheap dopamine rewards. As a thought experiment, what if we were to remove the “like” button on the web for a day? The online content we post would change. Selfies and clickbait news headlines would lose their value. Perhaps you would be generating something less for a reward and more for the freedom of expression.

The content we produce on the web represents a facet of ourselves whether that be real, aspirational, or filtered—all carry a certain meaning. But that meaning is face value. To get to know someone, you really need to know them in real life, as the offline context is far richer, more complex, and telling than the online personal. In the physical world, we are so much more than the sum of a quilted internet presence. The glass window is opaque, not clear.

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