Social Media Users Are Fake to Be Real

As any brand marketer knows, one of the key elements of value in our postmodern society is “authenticity” -- that potentially nonexistent quality involving transparency and self-identity, whereby you are effortlessly and manifestly who or what you say you are, always have been, and always will be. The appearance of authenticity is at least as important to individuals as brands, but it turns out that creating an image of authenticity involves, you guessed it, a lot of fakeness.

That’s according to a new study of social media users, titled “Social norms and self-presentation on social network sites: Profile work in action” and published in the journal New Media and Society. Researchers at Finland’s Aalto University studied user-generated content and interactions on Facebook and Last.fm, then asked users about their habits on social media, focusing on how their approaches to maintaining their profiles.

Ultimately their findings boil down to this: social media users think it is very important to appear a certain way, but it is equally important not to appear like they are trying to appear that way.

Study co-author Suvi Uski summed up the paradox at the heart of online authenticity. On one hand, “We… encountered a widespread disdain by users for what is known as profile tuning, or intentionally sharing content designed to depict the user in a false way,” reflecting “a common belief that sharing content in a way that is considered to be excessive, attention seeking or somehow portrays that individual in a fake manner is judged extremely negatively.”

At the same time, co-author Airi Lampinen observed, “While social norms required individuals to be real in their sharing behaviour, presenting oneself in the right way through sharing often necessitated an element of faking.” For example on Last.fm, “We found that it was not uncommon for some users to purposely choose to listen to, or indeed not listen to, particular music according to the image that that individual wants to portray to others.”

Similarly, while Facebook users expressed disdain for “profile tuning,” they readily admitted to selectively withholding information in order to control their image -- in other words, profile tuning by omission. The study’s authors conclude that in many cases, “A desire to conform actually inhibits a truthful unencumbered sharing of content.”

In closing, as you contemplate the paradox of identity, you may also want to consider this piece of wisdom from the Tao Te Ching: “He who stands on tiptoe doesn’t stand firm. He who rushes ahead doesn’t go far. He who tries to shine dims his own light. He who defines himself can't know who he really is.”

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