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Who is the ME in Social Media?

Good friend Stowe Boyd recently shared a quote by Gabriel García Márquez, “Everyone has three lives: a public life, a private life, and a secret life.”

Indeed, quite simply many of us live life allowing specific, trusted individuals to know us in one or more of our personae. Our moral compass as well as outside influences affect how we balance our three lives. The size and permeability of our personal dividers vary in the separation of each life and resemble doors that open and close based on our desires. We nurture each individually with slight coalescence, but concentrate on the establishment of a distinct ecosystem for cultivating and grooming who we are in public, private, and in secret.

The challenge, and sometimes the quiet objective, is to balance the opening and closing of each door, and to what extent, where we either intentionally or inadvertently allow our lives to touch and inspire the others. The risk however, is that with too much exposure, we may forever alter our personal standards and ultimately our identity. If the lines slowly vanish and cease to partition our compartmentalized characters, we disrupt the state, ethics, and relationships we distinctly support and preserve. A butterfly effect ensues and creates catastrophic fallout that forces mending and restoration and sometimes, complete demolition and the building of something entirely new.

For most of us, this inner struggle was delicately orchestrated and performed in seclusion and concealed in intimacy.

As Josh Harris believes, the web compels us to live in public, “The Internet is a new human experience. At first, we’re all going to like it. But, there will be a fundamental change in the human condition. One day we’re all going to wake up and realize that we’re all servants. It captured us.”

We Live in Public's Josh Harris and Brian Solis
Josh Harris and Brian Solis, Sundance 2009

Harris famously experimented with technology on human behavior, much of which is captured and presented by Ondi Timoner as a powerful documentary. We Live in Public premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival and earned the Grand Jury prize.

Jason Calacanis, a very good friend of Josh and part of the New York tech scene during the public broadcasting of personal lives, described Harris as a visionary, “He was always trying to advance the invertible. This is going to happen, let’s try it now.”

In the era of the social Web, however, we increasingly distort the laws and perceptions of privacy, willfully sharing details of our lives in public channels. As a result, we are perpetually resetting values, codes, and moral thresholds, exposing more about our intentions, views, and desires than we may realize or care to acknowledge.

Bowd observed, “Some people are the web equivalent of nudists: they live very open lives on the web, revealing the intimate details of their relationships, what they think of friends and co-workers, their interactions with family and authorities. But . . . even these apparently wide open web denizens may keep some things private, or secret.”

The socialization of media and the frictionless access to publishing tools and distribution channels that carry built-in audiences is creating a new genre of digital extroverts and information socialites. The desire to not only start the clock ticking towards 15 minutes of fame is only reinforced when we realize that we can extend it through the publishing of each new social object.

– It’s the pictures we share in DailyBooth that reveal our inner sanctum and persona

– It’s the personal videos we share on YouTube and that expose who we really are

– It’s the tweets we publish that blur the lines between status updates and vocalizing our inner monologue

The list goes on…

We are seduced and seemingly obsessed by the prospect of becoming Internet Famous and as a result, an intoxicating and addictive form of micro celebrity emerges.

In many ways, this new chapter in media represents the end of a previous state of innocence. Indeed, with Social Media, comes great responsibility…

Regardless of intent, sharing aspects of our private or secret life are no longer containable. Meaning, sharing secrets or confidential information online is the equivalent of buying billboard space. Eventually, someone will see it and it usually will include those we had hoped would not.

Thus in social media, privacy is both in contention and harmony with publicity. Social scientists, including Boyd, refer to this as “publicy.”

There is a countervailing trend away from privacy and secrecy and toward openness and transparency. . .And on the web, we have had several major steps forward in social tools that suggest at least the outlines of a complement, or opposite, to privacy and secrecy: publicy. The idea of publicy is no more than this: rather than concealing things, and limiting access to those explicitly invited, tools based on publicy default to things being open and with open access.

As Erick Schonfeld observed in a public and online discussion with Andrew Keen on Twitter, “instead of making the private public, we will make the public private. When public is the default, you deliberately select what to keep private instead of the other way around.”

Crowd Science recently published a study that measured attitudes towards social media. The goal was to understand usage patterns and behaviors around online social media, particularly MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter. Overall, the study surfaced the allure of “me” that unites fa”me” and social “me”dia.

45% reported that they want to be heard, enjoying the reactions that stem from sharing updates. The attraction of popularity leads some to either stretch the truth or reveal TMI or too much personal information. 36% believe however, that others are more concerned with what they have to say.

Attitudes Surrounding Social Media

In general, over 50% are either unsure, ambivalent or feel that they spend too much time online engaging and contributing to social media while 49% feel their time is rightly focused. 14% state that they often neglect important activities to spend time on online social media.

I was captivated by the sentiment of those social media users who contributed reluctantly, feeling pressure from others, or from fear of losing social status. 12% agree that stopping/reducing usage of online social media would be damaging to their social status.

As well, the emergence of regret seems to only grow in importance as we cast digital shadows. 25% of online social media users reportedly have said things on online social media that theyʼve later regretted.

Social Media provides a window into the lives of those whom we follow. Sometimes, the view is tempting.

Almost 50% of social media users donʼt necessarily disagree (and 20% agree) that other peopleʼs lives are more interesting than their own.

We are witnessing how we view, forge, and value relationships. While many prefer to maintain direct or in-person contact, a growing number prefer the empowerment of expressing themselves online.

32% of respondents suggest that they would rather communicate with friends/contacts through online social media than by telephone. And, while 80% disagree that social media is preferable to face-to-face contact, almost 10% prefer to use online social media instead.

And what of privacy or at least the semblance of a new form of separating our public from our private and secret lives? 76% care about privacy, but 14% are uncertain and 11% have no concern.

Self expression may have served as an appetizer in the societal buffet of new media, however, current behavior reflects a migration towards narcissism, fueling a transformation from conversational ecosystems to self-serving egosystems.

As mentioned earlier, 45% really ‘like it’ when people notice them. Over 1/3 feel that people are interested in what they have to say. 10% stretch the truth when portraying themselves online with 18% assuming a neutral position on the subject. 16% believe it’s important to maintain a flock of friends with 21% on the fence about the subject.

16% admitted to revealing things about themselves on online social media that they wouldnʼt under any other circumstances (14% remained neutral).

I refer to this phenomenon as the Verizon Network Theory (until I can come up with a better name.) We gain confidence in online interaction reinforced by every new update, follower, retweet, public @ (acknowledgment), and linkback. I suggest that this may actually have a positive impact on society as we then carry this new found courage back into the real world, supported by our invisible army of supporters who define our social graph. We carry this unseen support framework with us wherever we go.


In an interesting observation, Crowd Science suggests that there are no significant differences between males and females with the exception of specific attributes and within certain age groups.

We all know in Social Media, women rule

54% of female study participants over age 21 who use social media vs. 38% of males of the same age believe they spend far too much time on online social media. One half more females than males over the age of 30 (45% vs. 29%) believe that most people are interested in what they have to say on social media.

Almost 25% of female social media users over 20 years old report that they use online social media much more than their friends/contacts – twice the proportion of males (13%).

Age Trends

35% of teens believe social media offers a unique opportunity to present personal facts about themselves that they wouldnʼt reveal under other circumstances. 40% posted or said things on social media that they have later regretted.

Significantly larger proportions of those under age 30 would consider it extremely damaging to their social status if they stopped or reduced their usage of online social media, compared with their older counterparts.

46% of teens and 38% of respondents aged 18-29 believe they spend too much time on social media.

Publicy vs. Branding

In describing publicy, Laurent Haug paints a picture of what he refers to as the “plausible you,” but it is his idea around new privacy and intention that serves as the light at the end of the tunnel:

Now that you are back in the driver seat, you have your privacy back. Just of a different kind. You have built a space that could be called “publicy”, or “the plausible me”. It is a credible space where people expect to see information about you. Whatever credible information you say in there will be taken as true by the world. That is your new privacy. A space that is public but that you control, where you can say anything you want and have it taken as true.

In Social Media, it is our responsibility to define who we are and why we are significant. Who we are online is formed by an assemblage of everything we contribute – whether intended or not. Regardless of medium, we save ourselves from ourselves through the practice of restraint and the recognition that we are what we share. The socialization of media distributes pieces of us across the Web and without our knowledge, they are reassembled at will, without our ability to directly shape perception. Thus, our digital shadow is a reflection of our persona and reputation and therefore requires dedication to the active, thoughtful shaping and feeding of the “brand you” through everything you share.  In doing so, we dictate who we are today as well as who we become tomorrow and over time. The doors between public, private, and secret must remain discrete and preserved. While we embrace an era of publicy, we do not relinquish privacy, for without it, we fulfill the prediction of becoming servants of the Web instead of its engineers and conductors.

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205 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “Who is the ME in Social Media?”

  1. Hi Brian,

    Nicely articulated. I put my ideas on this topic down at last week. The comments so far appear to marry with Zuckerberg's recent assertion that public is now the social norm, not privacy. Like you, I could not disagree more strongly.

    We must continue to bang this drum else the general Web populace will sleep walk into a David Brin kind of nightmare scenario.

  2. lauriecreasy says:

    Wow! Great post, Brian. I'm trying to get my brain around creating a “public” persona that's actually private.

    In a way, the world gets less real all the time. With the right equipment, I can post a video that shows me walking down the street in Beijing without ever leaving Pennsylvania. I can create a fantasy world where the CGI is difficult to separate from the tangible. I can be agoraphobic but have an online presence that makes me look like a social butterfly.

    Once we blur that line, what becomes of brick and mortar reality? Somehow, I see the joy of going to the local coffee shop diminishing as people decide they need less F2F time. And maybe there won't be a shop for me to go to at all …

    Truly food for mind-bending thought. Thanks!

    • briansolis says:

      Interesting thoughts…in many ways, we already started to blur the line a long time ago. It's the shift of balance, power, and focus from relationships to relations.

  3. socialzipper says:

    Thank you for sharing the statistics, they are very helpful.

  4. Great Post, Really show was is going on with our privacy in this new era of social web.
    We are changing our barriers, now we are making public statement and sharing information, that a few years back before internet era we used to keep for our inner selfs.

  5. Margie Mintz says:

    I like your thinking.
    I make sure that I have clear goals for what my purpose is, given any online media interaction. I'm pretty straight-forward, and write that way, and my lines don't tend to get blurred.
    However, the more that people think of these tools as TOOLs, the more easily adept they can become at using them. A megaphone isn't a 'tool' for communication. It just makes your voice travel further.
    Social Media is a great tool for bringing people together, but it should be used as judiciously, and with as much care and any tool that has so many possibilities.
    Keep writing. We're appreciating what you say.
    Margie Mintz

  6. mihaitamas says:

    Great post Brian, Congratulations

    But I wonder how many people are conscious that with the exposure they become more vulnerable, because we can not separate the real social life from the virtual social life. At the end the consequences of our actions will take effect in the real life. Isn't it?

  7. Lynn Hector says:

    This is a great post! When diving into social media we tend to forget that the public/private life dichotomy is evolving into something entirely new. It is important for all social media newbies and addicts alike to take a moment to think about how they want their private life represented publicly, and their public life represented privately. This is an important element of personal branding, and should be incorporated into all discussions of branding via social media.

    • briansolis says:

      Lynn, I fear for many, it's already well underway. However, we do need to “think” about what it is we're contributing in order to ensure that our education, employment and online relationships are only strengthened and not compromised. But for those of us who can affect change around us, this is an important. I would love to see an increase in awareness among those who are too young to understand the differences and receiving zero guidance on how to shape their online personae.

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  9. hardaway says:

    Oh, this is a subject on which I have plenty to say. I love the idea of “publicy” and “privacy” as choices. I wish I had made that up. All my life I've defined which parts of myself are private and which I choose to share, while appearing to share everything. And that's only because I choose to share different things than other people, not because I share everything. Many things I share only with my two daughters, who are also my closest friends. Some things I share only with my friends, my doctor, my accountant…

    Yet even before the web, almost everybody agreed that I told too much, was too transparent, lived too openly. The multiple husbands, the children out of wedlock (later married the father), the hippie lifestyle — all lived in Barry Goldwater Country –freaked people out. And yet, I've never revealed anything I've felt sorry about later, or anything with which I feel uncomfortable. Everything about me that's online is intentionally online. People in my generation, after being horrified by what I “reveal,” are thrilled to read it and to have someone to talk to about things they have done and don't readily “confess.”

    I don't reveal because I want to be Internet famous. I don't even look at numbers, and at my age, I don't care. I reveal because I want to connect, or to help. I've made a shitload of mistakes in my life and had a lot of adventures, and some of them can be helpful to others. In other cases, I can learn something if I put myself out there. After all, the worst thing about life, especially about adversity (divorce, failure, illness, child problems) is feeling as if you are the only person ever to have had this experience.

    I wrote a book about my foster parenting experience, and it was because I thought at the time that I had failed, and I was trying to understand why. I wrote a blog about my hip replacement because I thought I was going to die of some hospital-related mistake and I wanted there to be a record for others about what to expect. I blog every day because life is complicated, and I like to hear what other people have to say about things I'm thinking about.

    Giving up my privacy? I don't think so. While I don't have a carefully constructed brand, I do have a presence I can stand behind and be proud of. It's my “oeuvre,” and it's authentic and rationally created, not just spilled. If I were a “social media guru,” that's what I'd be teaching.

  10. Margie says:

    Great post for what just happened in Puerto Rico with the doctors who took pictures while helping Haitians. It was posted on facebook from there to the world. We should learn the lesson.

  11. Mike Stenger says:

    Very in depth Brian! As a social media consultant, I think I've found a new blog to follow 😉

  12. Brian, I have to think there's a therapeutic element in all of these things. I think psychologists have learned, over the last few decades, that much of what ails us – individually and collectively – is the result of the conflict between these three personas we create to get through life. They start splintering early on in life and by the time we're adults with the maturity to be confident in who we are the differences between them can appear like great chasms, hard to cross.

    My hunch is, and it's based only on the evidence of my own life and those around me, that as we wrestle with this conflict as it's forced upon us by the internet-enabled world we're now living in, we'll solve the problem by adjusting each. At first slow nudges, but eventually I think we harmonize on an identity which, while still having small differences in aspect, and still maintaining the modicum of privacy we all need to stay sane, will be much more broadly consistent than before.

    And I think that's a happier place to be. I think it's more satisfying and rewarding. I think it removes distractions that otherwise hold us back. It may seem threatening to many people, where the conflict between personas is very large, but ultimately it's going to be more rewarding than harmful.

  13. Rich Harris says:

    Good post. I just had a conversation with some friends of mine that have varying degrees of introversion/extroversion. A couple interesting observations I have is that introverts ARE in fact feeling like they can be more open on Facebook, whereas that same person night not be caught dead revealing anything about themselves in a room full of anyone BUT close friends. I also spoke with an extroverted friend of mine that is an extrovert in real life, has a FB account, but said that he just doesn't feel like saying much online….however he has a very active social/business life. I think there are more variables in play than just extro/introversion here but I was surprised to find out that some of my extroverted friends really don't say much on any social network.

  14. Marc LeVine says:

    From a marketing standpoint, Social Media is always working hard to adapt itself to the needs (and wants) of the people. We are the taget audiences and the market at large. From a Social Networking standpoint, it is us, the people who must work hard to adapt to Social Networking. In this case, we are well exposed and very vulnerable as individuals who share much about ourselves over time. Reputation damage is bad enough when it effects a company and or a product. But, companies and products are just “things.” The worse that can ever happen to “things” is that they might simply disappear and be forgotten, should something go wrong. However, when people damage their reputations on the Internet, it is much worse for them and longer lasting. Still, we need to embrace Web 2.0. It is a new frontier to explore that offers challenges and risks similar to our old western frontiers and the exploration of both, the Oceans and of Space. As in all examples, success in these new and different environments has been based on solid preparation (knowledge and understanding), good judgement and letting caution be a guide.

  15. Stephanie Todd says:

    I do like to read about the web and how it plays a role in the way people choose to express themselves. However, I find it almost frustrating on how much people have come to rely on it for social reasons. I know too many people who are attached to their “online life.” I even know people who seem to be more expressive on the web than in person. That is a foreign concept to me because people you hardly know you will know intimate details about your thoughts and over all life. As time goes on I only see this situation becoming more extreme. People of all ages are emailing, facebooking, tweeting, etc. It seems like the web is moving at an exponential rate and next thing you know, we will all be living in a world where face to face contact has become non-existent.

  16. kelseyleffew says:

    I really enjoyed this post. It shows the world that nothing on the Web will ever be private. Our lives are slowly becoming public and soon there will be little to no privacy. Thank you for this post, it opened my eyes to the way I need to post my life throughout the Web.

  17. johnrossmckay says:

    I'd submit that there is also a side that is for all intents and purposes “secret” even to ourselves. Our perceptions are our own reality but we, through our actions, words, intonation may be communicating (or not) things of which even we ourselves are unaware.

    Moreover, people fill voids with mostly inaccurate info. If we prempt them by going “public” and sharing our “private” lives, then we set the tone. We are all spin Doctors.

    What is real?

    • briansolis says:

      Ah, so very true. It's a quiet form of denial mixed with a sense of invincibility that fools us into believing that we're reinforcing one thing through words, but are fact building something different through actions.

  18. Sarah Jo says:

    I find it surprising that 46% of teens think they spend too much time using social media. I expected the percentage to be much lower especially with the technology-centered world we're living in today. I also find it surprising that 35% of teens surveyed think of social media as an “opportunity” to disclose information about themselves that they normally would not disclose. I did a small study on the social penetration theory and found the same results: people are more comfortable disclosing more personal information online than they do in face-to-face.

    • _DMan_ says:

      Isn't that down to the individual's preference? I'm an open book. You may not be. Whether I'm talking to you in a restaurant, tweeting or adding something to my Facebook wall, I would share lots of stuff to encourage feedback, openness and trust from others…but there are some things I simply wouldn't share until I knew someone well enough. Human nature!?

  19. scottmonty says:

    In the future, we'll all have 15 minutes of privacy.

  20. Pingback: « Sociedade
  21. bus hire says:

    we have had several major steps forward in social tools that suggest at least the outlines of a complement, or opposite, to privacy and secrecy: publicy. The idea of publicy is no more than this: rather than concealing things, and limiting access to those explicitly invited, tools based on publicy default to things being open and with open access.

  22. AmosAnon says:

    I am loving these self-referencing comments; People on the internet communicating their opinions about people on the internet to other people on the internet. How very posthuman – this is surely the verge of a paradigm shift to transhumanism?

  23. I really enjoy this article.

  24. Jwls312 says:

    He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lampposts – for support rather than for illumination. ~Andrew Lang

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