Who Are You, Really, on the Social Web?

Who Are You, Really, on the Social Web?
Jamie Lee Wallace - Wed Oct 06, 2010 @ 11:00PM
Comments: 32

Today's post isn't typical Savvy fare, but even if you're here for marketing advice, you may want to read on. It's not as big a gap as you might think between personal and professional or even customer relations on the Web.

Yesterday, my friend Mark W. Schaefer published a very candid post on his blog {grow} (temporarily renamed {growl} ... you'll have to read the post's comments to get the joke) that included excerpts from an email I'd sent him after reading his piece, Social Media and the Big Conversation Fail. The post has sparked chats - both on and offline - about how "real" our social personas and relationships are.

There are so many layers to this, it makes my head hurt. The human impact of the social Web is a seriously broad topic that has been dissected, analyzed, and mused upon ad nauseam, perhaps culminating - at least for the moment - in the movie, The Social Network. The debates get old, but that doesn't make the cultural changes we're going through any less real.

The net-net of my heart-on-sleeve rambling to Mark is that, for all the lip service we give connection, conversation, and community, the social Web remains a place where we put only our best foot forward. Like the wizard of the Emerald City, we create flawless and impressive versions of ourselves. We inhabit these carefully crafted avatars like a second, if not always natural, skin. Each time we cross from the real world to the virtual one, we shed the unappealing parts of our personalities, leaving only the glossy bits showing.

There are exceptions, of course - people who "let it all hang out." But, in almost all cases, even these confessions are contrived. They are designed to make a point, elicit a specific response, build affinity, or simply entertain. They transform personality into platform. On the social Web, we too often become both product and marketer, always "on," even when we're being "authentic."

But the news isn't all tragic.

Real friendships do evolve out of these virtual spaces. We discover them when we speak not to the masses, but to an individual. In the same way you can't have a real relationship with the student body, for instance, you can't have a real relationship with your social network. You need to find not your Right People, but your right person. Each time you glimpse a spark of real connection, you have to stop, cup it in your hands, and tend it until it either bursts into flame or flickers out. A machine can build a list, but if you want to build a friendship, you have to step outside your avatar and be your whole, human self - flaws and all.

That's what each of us here did at Savvy. Eighteen months ago, we playfully named ourselves the "Savvy Sisters," but today that moniker is much more than just branding. It's a testament to the bonds that have developed over the course of forum conversations, building a blog, sharing resources, supporting each other's professional endeavors, and - finally - pulling back the curtain to reveal the sometimes frail, sometimes faulty, always fabulous human beings that push and pull the levers. We've gone way beyond "appropriate" and "PC." We share bad days, bad moods, bad decisions, and bad jokes. I know any one of my "sisters" would have my back - online or off. And, let me tell you, when we do have the chance to get together, the hugs are as real as any hugs I've ever given or received.

So enjoy the social Web for what it is - part frat house, part university, part cult, part networking event - and don't feel too much like you're looking for "love" in all the wrong places. The love is there, but you can only find it one person at a time.

What's your experience with building real relationships on the Web? Is it something you're even interested in? How do you think the situation differs for people who are here in a purely social capacity vs. those that are here both socially and professionally?

Comments: 32


1. Mark William Schaefer  |  my website   |   Thu Oct 07, 2010 @ 02:20AM

You have such an amazing talent to create imagery to illustrate a point. The Wizard is a brilliant icon for this story, Jamie!

Certainly the last couple of posts on {grow} have had me thinking about the weak links we cavalierly call "friendships" on the social web.

But you know what? It also allows for amazing new friendships and I mean REAL friendships. Historically, I have not been good at making friends. I have a few long and deep relationships and that has suited my personality I guess. But I have made more amazing connections in the past year than probably the last 20. I could be kidding myself, but I believe these are people -- like you -- who care about me.

THAT is cool. On the original "conversation fail" post you reference, Billy Mitchell has a great analogy about his grandpa waving from the porch. That's typically what we do every day on the social platforms, and you know what, That's OK too. It's more than OK. It's downright fun to have all these people from all over the world saying howdy.

And who knows? They just might turn out to be somebody like you.

Thanks for the awesome post and extending the dialogue on this interesting aspect of the social web!

2. Jamie Lee Wallace  |  my website   |   Thu Oct 07, 2010 @ 02:42AM

@Mark -

Awwww ... go on. ;)

I couldn't agree more - the "porch wave" part of the social Web is one of my favorite things. It gives people like me (solo entrepreneurs working from home) a quick and easy way to connect with the rest of the human race. It's fun, it's free, and I can do it in my PJs.

I'm like you (surprise, surprise) in that I don't have a huge posse of real world friends. I have many wonderful acquaintances, but not too many people I'd call up, say, on a Friday night to go out on the town. (I think it's the introspective writer part of me.) What the Web has over real life interactions is that it's really easy to control the pace of the relationship. Though the manipulation of our personality can be a false control, there's also the chance to share more intimate details more quickly. It's much less daunting, for instance, to share a personal story in an email (ahem) than to speak those words out loud to someone sitting right in front of you. In that way, the Web can actually break down barriers and bring people closer more quickly.

I imagine my relationship with the social Web will morph and grow as the years go by, but I don't anticipate ever giving it up. Not when it gives me the chance to get to know people like you & my Savvy Sisters and so many others. What a gift!

3. Sally G.  |  my website   |   Thu Oct 07, 2010 @ 03:29AM

Good morning Jamie and Mark!

I'm so glad you're continuing the conversation here, because I think there is powerful growth opportunity for people who 'transform personality into platform', though I'd word it like this: a place to transition from who people think you are to who you really are or desire to create yourself to be.

It's so easy to find ourselves defined by the roles we're portraying - or by the expectations people have developed for us, or by who we thought we were because we spent too much time seeing ourselves through the opinions of others.

For me, online participation has allowed me to present my Self as I believe myself to be. Here where no one knows me - I get to practice the art of choosing my thoughts carefully (catching myself when I start to judge others based on their tweets, blog post or comments and remembering that there is too much I don't know to form a useful opinion), choosing my words carefully (do I express to be clever? to heal? to entertain? what is most appropriate at this time? do I desire to support the blogger or prove I'm more informed? etc.) and choosing my actions carefully (how much time will I invest in conversation with others, who will I choose to converse with, who will I follow and actively support, when will I comment and when will I simply observe, synthesize and move on, etc.).

The response I receive while being the 'real me' builds my confidence to the point where I start introducing my true Self into other aspects of my life. Feelings or opinions I may have been reluctant to share because I felt they were too different or weak or inappropriate start finding a voice. Why? Because online, they were validated as sensible.

Often, people don't need answers or pushes or direction from others - often just knowing that somebody 'gets them', that they're okay exactly as they are, that their thoughts or ideas have merit and that their voice is worth listening to ... that's often enough to change the course of someone's life in a very meaningful way.

I am an Empathic Introvert - very sensitive to energy, particularly the energy of other people. I have extroverted qualities that render me delightfully social - but 'in real life', I'm not able to sustain them for long in a populated setting. I become quite depleted and need time alone, in quiet, to get my balance and equilibrium back.

Online interaction was designed for people like me. You can show up when you like, walk away when you like, and not be bombarded with the energy of others that can either lift you to soaring heights or plummet you like a weighted anchor.

I'm also highly intuitive - and I can sense who needs to be noticed, lifted, encouraged, supported, pushed, validated, comforted or recognized. I love being a person who can bring all of that and more to others ~ it's completely in alignment with who I am and it's so much more readily accepted online than it is out here in the 'real world'.

Having said that, there is a lot of neediness, desperation, manipulation, ego, etc. online ~ it oozes through the screen in a rather sticky way. I can only absorb so much of that before I need to 'hibernate' for a few days to get back to balance.

So to sum up ~ I think we've all been presented with a rather powerful opportunity to advance ourselves relationally and socially ... and we'll do that, once we're ready to strip away behaviours that clog the process, allowing technology to consistently outpace social development.

4. Ann-Christin Lindstedt  |  my website   |   Thu Oct 07, 2010 @ 03:29AM

Jamie, you've brought up some fantastic points here. Just like you and Mark, I build friendships slowly and deeply (maybe it IS a writer thing). Yet, as writers, I think we can also quickly distinguish someone's true "voice" from the "gloss." Though deep relationship-building may take years, it doesn't taken long at all to identify which people you'll connect best with -- even in just 140 characters. It doesn't make others bad people or bad friends. You just can't "click" with everyone.

The amazing thing about the social Web is it instantly bridges one significant gap: distance. Yes, you'll miss the hanging-out-on-Friday-nights aspect, but that's not all there is to friendship. There are so many wonderful people around the world I would have missed out on knowing who are blessings in my life. And that's especially important when you move halfway around the world from all the friends you've ever had. You're absolutely right -- "What a gift!"

5. Jamie Lee Wallace  |  my website   |   Thu Oct 07, 2010 @ 03:54AM

@Sally_G Morning! Your comment covered a lot of ground! What you made me think about most is the way our interrelation skills need to adapt to work well on the Web. You are so right about the different motivations, energies, and personalities - what we need to do now is evolve our ability to "read" people without the benefit of real world clues like tone of voice, inflection, and body language. You are so passionate on this topic ... shall we be expecting a post from you soon?

6. Jamie Lee Wallace  |  my website   |   Thu Oct 07, 2010 @ 04:01AM

@Ann-Christin - You're right. Friendships aren't just about Friday nights. :) What you said - especially the bit about physical distance - reminded me about the great love stories and epic friendships of years gone by - conducted entirely by post. There is something powerful about the written word to connect people in deeper ways than speech. Though both can come off cavalier, I think that the process of writing forces us to slow down, consider our words, weigh our thoughts. Whether the exchange of these words takes place in Email, tweets, or ink on parchment, the sharing of ideas and emotions is ultimately the same as long as the writer is transparent.
Thanks for sharing your perspective. More to think about! :)

7. Jenn Whinnem  |  my website   |   Thu Oct 07, 2010 @ 04:14AM

Jaime, I love that you opted for the picture of gatekeeper guy instead of the Wizard. Too perfect!

To your comment about putting our best foot forward, is it really any different in real life than it is in person? When I am out and about socially, I tend to try to be sanitized version of myself. In more intimate settings, I am more likely to let my guard down. I am always me, I just keep my hand on the volume button.

I not only thing real friendships are possible online, I've done it. My two best friends are people I first met online. Ten years ago when I was meeting people from online, there was definitely a stigma, but I would say that continues to lessen.

Finally, as the person Mark wrote about the first time around, I have to say I've gotten my favorite thing out of this: other people sharing their stories. Thanks Jaime for joining me in the sharing!

8. Jamie Lee Wallace   |   Thu Oct 07, 2010 @ 04:52AM

@Jenn - How does it feel to be the catalyst for such a conversation! :)
You make an excellent point. We do put our best foot forward in real life, too. Absolutely. I guess the difference is the amount of control you have over that initial impression. I think that online you can get more mileage, so to speak, out of your "best side," while in real life it's harder to hide those less-than-perfect bits. As Sally_G brought to mind, the online world doesn't offer us any of those non-verbal clues about people. In the real world, it's harder for us to hide our true feelings - joy, fear, anxiety, self-doubt. Our body language and expressions give us away. Online, we can bluff until the cows come home.

I do agree with you whole-heartedly that online relationships can blossom into true, deep, meaningful ones. What I hear most in these stories is that the friends carry their online relationship into the real world. I'm curious, is that the case with you and your two best friends? I think that the online/offline combination is the strongest and sort of the best of both worlds.

Thank you, Jenn, for starting all the sharing. So good to know you & happy to be part of the "naked conversation." ;)

9. giulietta nardone  |  my website   |   Fri Oct 08, 2010 @ 03:12AM

Hi Jamie,

Sally G. is a fellow muse, so I followed her tweet over here. Nice to meet you, cyberally anyway.

I do a lot of face-to-face interacting in my town to keep that "skill" sharp. Yet, I also converse with folks I've met on-line. Some I've met in person and/or talk to on the phone.

Whatever foot we put forward on the Internet reveals bits and pieces of our personalities. I have found that even the bits can collage themselves enough for me to get a pretty good picture of the person. It's worked for me.

I love to meet folks with an open-mind, playful attitude toward life, and a willingness to challenge the status quo -- that usually comes through in tweets or responses to my tweets or the great comments I get on my blog.

The big gem in all of this is to take the next step and have conversations via phone or in person with your new friends. I learn something wonderful from everyone I meet!

Thanks, Giulietta

10. Steve Dodd  |  my website   |   Fri Oct 08, 2010 @ 04:48AM

@jamie, mark and jenn . It seems like people are beginning to understand that they need to "Escape the Cocoon" ( a trend predicted by futurist Faith Popcorn in the mid 90's) and stop hiding behind the monitor. What will society become if we lose the authenticity of direct contact?

11. Jamie Lee Wallace  |  my website   |   Fri Oct 08, 2010 @ 10:43AM

@Giulietta - (Beautiful name!) Thanks for coming by. So very nice to meet you as well. Your advice to get to know people better either in person or on the phone is great. That's something that I am making a personal committment to doing in my life - both for business and personal reasons. If we each took an hour a week to have coffee or chat on the phone with one new person, imagine all the deeper connections that could be made and new possibilities that might blossom! ;)

12. Jamie Lee Wallace  |  my website   |   Fri Oct 08, 2010 @ 10:46AM

@Steve - Hello!! :)
You read that book, too? I remember "discovering and devouring" it back in the day. Pretty amazing, the accuracy of her predictions. Like I said in my response to Giulietta, I am trying to break out of my cocoon more these days. Online connections are wonderful, a miracle of modern technology, BUT in order to make the most of that miracle, we've got to take things to the next step in our own way ... one person at a time. ;) TKS so much for stopping by!

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