I was recently provided a copy of James Robilotta’s new book, Leading Imperfectly: The Value of Being Authentic for Leaders, Professionals, and Human Beings. James is one of my “digital friends.” A person I’ve connected to virtually, through shared goals, a shared outlook on life, and kismet. We’ve barely spoken in person, but he’s one of those people who give you the vague feeling that you already know them before you’ve met them. All around a great guy.
In any event, I had the opportunity to read James’ book and wanted to share it here because I think it is a very real, accessible, and easy read with a lot of nuggets of wisdom and takeaways. In particular, I wanted to highlight the following quote from his book. Given my research into college students and their developmental experiences online, this stood out to me:
In a world run by social media, the concept of being real to one another has been stretched and manipulated. We can be whomever we want online. I have friends on Instagram who consistently post pictures of themselves next to cars that aren’t theirs. Some of the people I follow on Twitter only post clichéd leadership quotes. And my Facebook friends, based on the pictures they post, eat only fancy foods.
The image most people project online is a streamlined head-in-the-clouds vision of how they define happiness, what they want their lives to look like, and what they care about. So if selectively choosing your social media posts is what you need to do to make you feel better, go ahead and do that. Fighting the battle of being your most authentic self by prioritizing your social media persona is backwards. We must look at our real-life persona first.
Although James has not read my research, what he has to say is SPOT ON with what I’ve found. Students in my study discussed the ways in which they curate their digital identities… or reputations… or self-presentations… to present “idealized lives.” Students tend to omit the perceived negative and the mundane from their lives. This act is highly connected to a feeling of needing to “fit in” and that vulnerability represents a “sign of weakness.” This was not true of all of the students in my study, but all of them recognized this behavior in themselves or peers. Additionally, the behavior appears to be developmentally based. As one progresses through college, these impulses diminish over time.
So how does one be authentic online? Can one be authentic online? I think the answer to this lies in both what one’s goals are on social media and the technology itself. We are only at the beginning of the “social media revolution,” and as such, the tools that we have at our disposal are somewhat limited. The selective sharing that occurs on social media necessarily dictates that we could never hope to capture our complete selves online. I’m not even sure that we would want to if this was possible.
It goes back to one’s goals on social media. What do you use it for? If you are true to your goals, then I think you can say you are being authentic or the term I prefer, genuine. Being genuine as opposed to authentic means you care less about portraying everything in your life online and off as one in the same and instead seek to communicate with others frankly while being open to the opportunities these connections may afford.
The portion of James’ quote that I am still unsure I agree with is when he states, “We must look at our real-life persona first.” My hesitation here is that I think increasingly, or at least for some, the boundary between one’s physical self and virtual self is not so easily demarcated. There is a tendency to make our physical world self primary, but this impulse may not hold over time. As we increasingly live our lives in digital spaces, this distinction may be difficult to maintain.
But that is but a minor quibble. The sentiment is spot on. And the rest of the book places it in context. I encourage you to check it out.