Just Being Yourself is Your Social Media Future

What if you could just be yourself on Facebook or Instagram? Not in a #nofilter #liveauthentic kind of way, but in a way that is true to yourself.

Peach, the latest sensation in social apps, says its a way to keep up with friends and be yourself. That sounds familiar. Ello is a place to connect, create, and celebrate life, Secret is a place to be yourself, Teens are setting up Finstagrams, fake accounts on Instagram where they can be real.

Not Quite Ourselves

A space where you can really be yourself, and grow in self-awareness, and reflect on who you’ve been and who you will become has been spotty. Social media as a way to nurture relationships, cultivate thoughtful conversations, and develop meaningful community is hit or miss.

Rather than conversations, we shout out achievements and build our personal brand. We feel obligated to endorse each other, to the point of absurdity. We look to each other for cues about how to be, and suffer from the comparison. We can’t be ourselves, because we fear our selves won’t quite measure up.

There may have been a time, when we were still prompting each other for 25 Random Things perhaps, when our Facebook friends weren’t our “Facebook friends”. That might just be the memory talking.

The effect of social media is so negative that some countries are considering banning teens from Snapchat and Instagram. People are deleting their own accounts, sometimes famously. As a researcher who spends my days observing and documenting people’s digital lives, I’ve heard thousand of stories about sabbaticals, detoxes, or brief experiments with new social networks. Everyone hoping for better.

It’s not all bad though. We support each other, even if it is in a “thoughts and prayers” kind of way. We stay in touch with people we want to keep in our lives. We share inspirational things with each other the way my mom still, adorably, sends me magazine clippings in the mail. We have good intentions.

A Truly Social Future

Much of the blame for the state of social media is placed squarely on the human beings who populate that space. We could reflect more, and post less. Our aim could be truer. But it’s going to take something else too. For social media to be truly social it is going to have to help us to be ourselves and encourage us to engage with each other in meaningful ways. Here’s a way to start.

Truly social media will feel safe. Before we can even think about being ourselves, social media has to feel safe. We can’t be ourselves because the risk is too high. There are plenty of controls — too many. Rather than fiddling with complex privacy goals, the next generation of social media will make us aware of defaults and the trade-offs of personalization. This means transparency, where we understanding how the algorithms work and how data is being used. It means consideration before personalization.

Truly social media will give you opportunities for reflection. What if Facebook, for instance, could let you really reflect on your life? Rather than a carefully calibrated positive Year in Review to share, Facebook could offer new ways to consider how you have changed over the years or which relationships are making you happiest. What if our digital assistants, bot or not, encouraged us to take a step back?

Truly social media will understand a more complicated you. Instagram knows who you like, Facebook knows your age, Twitter knows what you share. And yet their algorithms don’t recognize our complexity. Right now, it’s based on behavior over emotion or intention. Values-based design is a trend that may tip the balance. Employers are asking values-based questions as part of onboarding, and in 2016 we will see money management apps taking this approach too. Combining values check-ins, like you see on Mitra, could make social media more mindful of our big goals in life.

Truly social media will nurture relationships. Right now it’s a challenge to nurture relationships. It’s labor intensive to see more from people you care about, whether mercilessly pruning who you follow on Twitter or spending hours trying to reverse engineer Facebook’s algorithm to see more from the people you care about. A prompt for a birthday wish is great, but a nudge to reconnect with people may be even better. Experimental apps like Pplkpr can give us a new perspective on our relationships, by combining recorded physical and reported emotional responses. What would it look like to have this kind of insight integrated into our social media experience?

Truly social media will let us reclaim conversation. It’s difficult to have a real conversation in our online social spaces. Peach’s magic words give us conversation starters, like Table Topics for a digital age. Remember pokes? Reclaiming conversation seems like it’s about stepping away from social media. Maybe it’s not. Or not always. Emotion-sensing software like Affectiva is undoubtedly great for advertising, but imagine how a new emotional intelligence might help us to better communicate with each other.

The New You Is The Real You

Truly social media is not all vacations and trophies. It’s a little messy, slightly vulnerable, always safe. Yes, we are having fun caking each other and unlocking secret features for the time being, but we need more than that. The magic word we are looking for is — meaning.

Is it possible to just be yourself on social media? I would love to hear your story.