These are strange times for anyone whose chosen profession forces them to be online.
Journalists, authors, filmmakers, musicians, milk men… we’re all being pulled toward building some kind of a following in order to help sell the thing we really care about.
And you’ll often see advice that the key to being a Good Engaging Online Person is to be… Authentic! Your Real Self! Bravely putting yourself out there! Just be you!
Back in the day there was even a term called “naked blogging” for the people who posted brutally honest posts about things that most of us wouldn’t have had the courage to even mention aloud.
But… what does it even mean to be your “real self” online? And what is the internet doing to the way we think of ourselves entirely?
I worry a lot about what being “very online” is doing to me. And to all of us.
Far from channeling our real selves, I worry the internet is warping our real selves.
The tyranny of engagement
Here’s the trap we all fall into.
You’re supposed to grow a following on social media so you can promote the thing you really care about. That means you have to pay attention to what works on any given platform.
So! Hard working, diligent person that you are, you follow the numbers. You experiment and lean into the things that seem to be rewarded by the masses.
Only… the things that tend to be rewarded by the platforms kind of suck.
On Twitter: It often means being hyperbolic, vindictive (dunks!), simplistic, emotional, provocative, and galaxy brain. It’s hard to fit nuance into 280 characters, so people tend to just dispense with that whole shade of gray thing entirely.
On Instagram: It often means being vain, artificial, materialistic, and show-offy. Instagram tends to be aspirational and aesthetically driven, so it tends to reward people who are beautiful and rich.
Emotion over reason. Black and white over nuance. Conflict over discussion. Purity tests over common cause.
Engagement! Engagement! Engagement!
Sure. There are some positive things out there that gain traction. There’s humor. There are cute animals. There’s art and memes. There are links off those platforms to very useful things.
And don’t get me wrong. On the whole I think the existence of social media makes the world a better place by giving a voice to people who didn’t have one before.
But what I’m talking about are the incentive structures that are baked into the platforms. How many retweets do you see people get for like… just being compassionate? Just being a good person with no expectation of reward?
What are these platforms optimized for?
What do these platforms steer you to become?
Bending toward what works
There’s a reason why nefarious actors have invested such massive resources in bot armies that mimic real people and shape the discourse.
We are absolutely influenced by everything we see online. We internalize the numbers. We are scared of being chased by a small army of avatars. We try to mimic what’s successful. We all start tweeting about the same damn things.
And all those conflicts, all those fights, all those outrages… it gets into you.
It’s hard! You want to pay attention to the outrages. You want the world to be a better place. It feels complacent to look away.
But even setting aside the anger and anxiety of having the world’s ills thrust straight into your face all the time, think about the way you make those little adjustments in the face of those warped incentives.
You start posting about politics a bit more, or whatever the zeitgeist may be at the moment. You become a bit more brazen with your feelings. You become a bit more provocative. A bit more abrasive. A bit less likely to find points of commonality with people you disagree with. A bit less calm and magnanimous.
Maybe you travel a bit more because you see the Instagram stories. Maybe you work harder to get in shape and “optimize” your physical features. Maybe you seek out the relative comfort of things you already agree with just a bit more.
Is that still you? Sure! It’s still you.
But you’re gradually being shaped. You’re being molded by those bizarre incentive structures.
As Jia Tolentino said about Instagram face:
What did it mean, I wondered, that I have spent so much of my life attempting to perform well in circumstances where an unaltered female face is aberrant? How had I been changed by an era in which ordinary humans receive daily metrics that appear to quantify how our personalities and our physical selves are performing on the market? What was the logical end of this escalating back-and-forth between digital and physical improvement?
What does being online do to you?
Your followers don’t want the real you
Every now and then I’ll post something about politics or sports even though I know it’s not really why people come to this blog or follow me on social media.
Here’s the thing. The real me is very fascinated by these things! Reading about politics and foreign affairs, watching soccer, and hanging out with friends are seriously my only non-writing hobbies. They’re big parts of my life.
So if I were being my “real self” online? I’d post about them!
But let me tell you: people get mad when I post about politics. And this was as true in 2008 as it is in 2020. (They just ignore my sports posts lol).
Look. I get it! It’s not why these people subscribed. Politics is not what this blog is supposed to be about. I’m not an expert. There’s plenty of politics literally everywhere. I get it.
But I started thinking a lot about what it means for people to get so angry about those posts. And here’s what I realized:
People push you to give them the thing they want from you. They push you to be the thing they want you to be. And some people will lash out at you if you stray from what they want you to be and what they find useful.
Even if that thing they want you to be is not really you. Even if it’s not your whole, authentic self.
Sure. This happens in real life to an extent. But online, we exist to people as a tiny slice of usefulness. You become a utility company, like a small railroad. And once you’ve established a following it starts feeling pretty hard to step out of that.
It’s another way we are shaped by our online lives. The boundaries of what you are “supposed” to be grow to be pretty rigidly enforced.
You keep getting pushed to give more of what people want from you even when the rewards for doing so start feeling uncertain.
Where this leaves us
The thing that’s most confusing to me is trying to sort through what to do about it all.
I might not like what social media is doing to me, but I depend on it. My livelihood is bound up in these bizarre incentive structures.
In a weird way I almost worry that resisting social media will leave me out of step with the rest of society. Everyone’s getting warped, so if I don’t get warped right along with them I’m going to end up being the “crazy” one!
But I definitely find myself spending less and less time on social media. I try to think twice before I let myself get angry. I try to make sure I can still concentrate.
Most importantly, I try to remember that my real life isn’t online.
There’s no such thing.
Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching!
For my best advice, check out my online classes (NEW!), my guide to writing a novel and my guide to publishing a book.
And if you like this post: subscribe to my newsletter!
Art: Detail of Woman at a Window by Caspar David Friedrich
Great post, Nathan. This is the appeal of thinking of oneself as a brand. There’s an artifice to that, but at least it provides some distance for one’s mental health. My “brand” is brave about discussing sexism and I see the fallout I often get afterward as inconsequential noise. It’s more important to me than being liked so it gets shoved under the brand. In real life I’m much more about survival. Men hold the power and I’m not messing with that. In that way, the brand can be more authentic…
Not to simplify anything you said, just adding my own thoughts about how I handle this phenomenon.
Irene Haven says
From now on, I’ll even read the sport posts ???? I definitely get the struggle to be real, in all it’s facets even if it doesn’t ‘get’ you somewhere. But I still love reading what the real person behind a blog or any other social media is doing/thinking/cooking/playing. Being real online is what you want it to be. Strange thing this social media..
Great post, Nathan.
I work in marketing/digital media. I see both the good and bad in it. Having worked in the media field for almost 20 years, I know how it works better than some, and it still gets to me too. I fall into the traps I know are out there, especially on Facebook. Personally, I would like to see diverse posts, and or thought-provoking political posts, as long as they are respectful. I’ve started unfriending people who post derogatory political posts, not because they’re political, but because they’re hateful. I’m a firm believer in shades of gray and would like to see us get back there. But as for being real… I don’t want to go back to the days where people are so real they tell us everything they’re doing all the time. Realness is great, but still needs a filter. My motto is that if I wouldn’t have that conversation face to face, it doesn’t need to go online.
Cinthia Ritchie says
Nathan! I love this post, for I often worry about the same thing. In some respects, I hate social media, even though I depend upon it for readership. The person I’ve created on social media is obviously my better self, my most shining self, the more understanding and wittier and more brilliant self, and sometimes, if I spend too much time on certain sites, I start to believe that this is the “real” me. Alas, it is not, and I think that that’s one of the dangers of social media, that it paints this artificial picture of all of us, and these artificial pictures are often more appealing than the person sitting behind the keyboard or tapping out characters on a phone. I’ve taken vacations from social media and found myself happier without the constant scrolling and commenting, the posting photos and slices of my life which, in reality, are only minutes or seconds out of an ordinary and mostly bland day.
P.S. I loved this: “Everyone’s getting warped, so if I don’t get warped right along with them I’m going to end up being the “crazy” one!” So sadly true.
P.S.S. Please post more about sports. I’m a runner and obsessed with anything running so yeah, I get it that there’s more to life than writing. I tend to follow sites that offer more than just writing topics. So bring on the sports and other tidbits from your life, okay?
Well stated. Some very real things to ponder. I think many feel as if social media and online presence have ‘sucked us up’ so to speak. Perhaps it is more haunting for the introverted who feel they are never really understood to begin with. Then to have this persona frolicking about wearing their underwear and speaking with their lips…terrifying, really.
And yet we willingly play along for the sake of our readers, for the sake of the story.
Danielle de Valera says
Stunningly fine post, Nathan. You nailed it.
Neil Larkins says
Here is my best online real-self response: WOW!!! Love this, Nathan. And that’s the real-self me(?) as well.
Anita Rodgers says
Nathan, I think your readers consider you to be awesome. We appreciate the real you we sense you to be and have seen demonstrated over the years through your opinions, your response to others–or through your self control not to respond. In your posts, we appreciate the wit, wisdom, respect, and expertise we can share. And now you’ve shared your vulnerability which is equally admirable and appreciated.
But now I’ve read your latest post, I wonder if mine have come across as annoying or too extreme or too self-focused on what I think.
However, of course, there is the danger of making everything about oneself. lol
I’m ancient of days, old enough to be your grandmother, and am also cheeky enough to produce the age card as an excuse for everything I do wrong–or don’t want to do. Too much time off work? (I still run my own business) Sleeping too much? Not able to carry/pick up that object? Untidy? Grumpy? Forgetful? Eccentric?
It’s a great perk of being in my age group. Yay
So don’t take any notice if my posts seem to indicate a tinge of Felicity Fauxpah. I’m just trying be my authentic self while hoping not to give aggravation or offense. 🙂
Like Wendy, who also commented on this post, I think you are an amazing blogger. Consistently I find what I’ve come to expect from your site, and I like it when you allow your readers to see more than “Coach Nathan”. Your off-topic posts are always thoughtful, and really, I feel they add authenticity to your online persona. I have followed your blog since meeting you at the San Miguel Writers’ Conference in 2010. You might remember that the social event on Saturday night had a speakeasy theme – with Fridas, Diegos and other iconic Mexicanos flitting from table to table – at the next table, a gaunt woman pouting into her margarita pronounced this as clichéd. “We’re here to write,” she grumbled. True, but not day and night. Life needs balance, so do writers’ conferences, and so do blogs. And let’s keep one more thing in mind, I read your blog gratis and I’m grateful that you take the time to write so often. I have learned a lot from your posts – all of them – you are one of the most authentic bloggers I read. Don’t worry about the gaunt ghosts; they are few and your appreciative audience is made up of many.
Lucianne Poole says
I think this may be the best thing I’ve read about the pitfalls of social media. Well done! I’m going to share it with all the teens I know, because they really need to hear it.
I love this and am aggressively nodding.
Great post! I’ve always tried to separate my author self and real self online, although the two often mix. (and now I feel strange admitting that). When I discovered how social media was affecting my moods and my work day, I pulled back a lot. Insta is the one I favor lately, but yes, it can definitely read show-offy. (Look where I’ve been! What I’ve done! Who I’m with!) I’ve noticed though, that the posts that seem to invite the most interaction are the ones where I’ve admitted to struggles or gushed over something that I really love – in other words, the authentic ones. (those are also the ones that I respond to as well!) And yet at the same time, those are the ones that can leave me with a vulnerability hangover that haunts me for days. I definitely have to take my social media in small, thoughtful doses these days.
Tracey Phillips says
Nathan, so wonderfully put. I’ve had this email in my in-box for a few weeks, saving it for the right time. Or to be more honest, I spend more time on social media than reading meaningful articles like yours. As a debut novelist, (2019) I wasn’t prepared for what social media would do to my life. It really stressed me out–doing it, having to do it, taking the time to do it. The worst part is the addictive feeling that goes with it–I MUST post today. And alternately–how many people ‘liked’ me?
I really enjoyed your take that we are all warped by it. and it’s good to know that others (like me) don’t enjoy it as the be-all way to get yourself known. I also loved what you said about it shaping our public persona.
Ultimately, I think that as creators, we need to make the very best product possible and in that way we are true to ourselves in the best most honest way. Not everyone will love you (the artist), but that’s the subjective nature of art. And that’s the way social media works too.
Thanks so much for this post!!