Beyond “what are you doing now” status updates, and what the aggregate data set from our social sharing culture means for all of us
I’ve lived a pretty full life online since the early ’90s. Maybe you have, too. At this point, there isn’t much about me that hasn’t been chronicled and perhaps examined in intimate detail in a listserv, newsgroup, forum, blog post, or Facebook thread.
I could never run for president.
Or maybe that’s a silly thing to say now. Because we’re going to have to deal with unearthing that level of digital backstory eventually. When the first “digital native” runs for office, we will all have the opportunity to scrutinize her archived childhood crushes from Tumblr and Instagram, or his steady stream of selfies in high school, or her cryptic emo Facebook posts when sleep-deprived and lonely during college. They’ll all be there for our review, because the internet never forgets.
Which is what we’ve been telling kids about the internet since there were people older than kids to tell the kids about the internet.
Clearly digital culture has gone well beyond status updates. We’ve progressed beyond pictures of coffee and cats. From what a person posts, shares, likes, and clicks, you could form a pretty interesting sketch-level avatar of who they are: including the quotes, jokes, memes, news stories, feel-good viral videos, selfies, rants, and so on. What they find funny, what they value, what news stories engage them, whom they want to impress, what kind of content makes them linger long enough to read an article or watch a video all the way through.
I’m fascinated by how much we share now. But I’m equally as interested in what we don’t share now.
What We Don’t Share Now
People think I’m radically transparent because I have shared moments in my life that seemed vulnerable, and they are, but on some level they have also been chosen moments of vulnerability. When my husband died and my social-media-savvy friend group started posting outpourings of grief on his Facebook wall and sympathy and support to mine, it became clear there was no way I wasn’t going to be living that process out online to some extent.
A new friend from a tech conference emailed me a few days after we met and said “I’ve looked around a bit and — wow. It’s impressive what can be found of you but I realized that there also were sad times in your life.”
But I didn’t and don’t choose to be vulnerable about everything all the time. I’m not, despite appearances of intimate sharing, what I could consider an over-sharer.
For example, when I catch a cold or have a fever, I no longer talk about it online. It used to be that I would post on Twitter or Facebook when I was sick, perhaps hoping for a little sympathetic comfort, but all too often it led to people sending me “joking” advice that I should eat meat. (I’ve been vegan for nearly two decades.)
For that matter, it could be said that unsolicited advice of any kind is the price you pay for sharing. Post a picture from your travels, and someone is bound to tell you — not suggest to you, mind you, but tell you — that you need to go to a certain landmark or restaurant, or “be sure to do [X].” As if mansplaining isn’t annoying enough, now we have travelsplaining.
Sharing that you’re traveling can create a security risk anyway. You never know who might be on the lookout for people announcing that their houses will be sitting empty. Back when I lived in a very identifiable house in Nashville, I sometimes delayed news of my travels until I was returning from the trip.
Sometimes I don’t share what’s going on in my life because it’s not my story to tell, or not solely my story to tell. I think that’s what drives people to “vaguebook” with statuses like “processing difficult times my friends are going through.” We can’t really talk about it, but we still feel compelled to share it.
Pundits in the past few years have written a lot about FOMO, or the “fear of missing out,” which is this sense of anxiety that if you’re offline or not following your social feeds, you’re missing out on what everyone else might be sharing. But I think there’s a correlating anxiety that’s less discussed: about missing out on sharing what you experience. Fear of Not Sharing, or something like that. Because more and more, I get the sense that our experiences don’t feel real or valid to us until we’ve shared them with our followers and gotten a few likes on them. Preferably a whole lot of likes, and a few re-shares.
It may seem like vanity or insecurity that drives us to do this, but I suspect it’s more nuanced than that. I suspect it’s because we actually live our online lives in ways we don’t fully understand yet and can’t yet articulate well. We create an aspirational avatar of our selves with every bit of content we share.
Our Digital Selves Are Our Aspirational Selves
When I worked at magazines.com, I took on a project to understand what the brand promise of a online aggregator of print magazine subscriptions could be. What it led to was an understanding that people have a different relationship to magazines than they have to other media they consume, and that the magazines people subscribe to, taken as a set, represent an aspirational view of themselves. People who may never perform on stage subscribe to Performing Guitarist, and there is no requirement for a tidy home before subscribing to Better Homes and Gardens. (In fact, the word “better” in that magazine’s title is a real clue, isn’t it?)
While that may not seem like a remarkable insight, it was indeed a focusing one for a company that wasn’t really sure what it had to offer its customers.
In the meantime, social media and everything else has given the content we consume a hard shake, like a snow globe dispersing tiny glittering flecks of content everywhere. Now our aspirational selves can be understood in dramatically greater detail by analyzing the patterns of the shiny content flecks that capture our attention for brief moments in fleeting ways every day online.
The data that connects those moments is out there, being mined for insights every day by a wide variety of entities. The motive is profit, generally speaking, but we also need to show our digital selves respect; after all, our digital selves are our aspirational selves.
On the other hand, maybe some of that content is just sparkly fake snow. And for all the admonitions to be “authentic” online, we don’t yet have a useful framework for understanding how weaving elements of fakeness into our virtual identities — carefully-staged Instagram photos, lighthearted status updates while bored and depressed at home — might play into our aspirational understanding of our selves. Which person are you, really: the one you’ve always been or the one you’re someday hoping to be?
Beyond Personal Brand
This is why the popular notion of “personal brand” is so stilted and artificial and even arbitrary. Yes, we do have the opportunity to be intentional about the self we reinforce. But human beings are not businesses with a singular focus and mission; we grow, our identities are fluid, and eventually, if we’re lucky enough to survive long enough to become a little enlightened, we evolve. Our old aspirational selves are no longer aspirational then; they’re our past aspirational selves, an empty shell of who we once wanted to be. But like empty shells sometimes do, it may provide a useful temporary housing for some other being that comes along after us, sharing our old content as their own revelation.
Meanwhile, we move forward, creating new dimensions of our selves with every interaction, dragging our digital detritus behind us.
Thank you for reading. Please clap or “Recommend” if you found this piece interesting or meaningful. And please feel free to share widely.
Kate O’Neill, founder of KO Insights, is an author, speaker, and “tech humanist” consultant solving strategic problems in how data and technology can shape more meaningful human experiences. Her latest book is Pixels and Place: Connecting Human Experience Across Digital and Physical Spaces.