This is the second post in a series on online authenticity. The first post, Beyond ‘brand you’: reflections on social authenticity, points out a challenge for anyone who seeks to brand themselves on social media. It is easy to fall into the trap of defining oneself through shares and retweets. This sets up a shiny wall of themes and memes surrounding your brand, but it can make it impossible for friends and followers to access the real you. To define an authentic presence on social media, you need to tap into the unique person that you are offline. An authentic presence requires that you creatively represent the best version of who you are.
What do you have to give to the world? Take the best version of who you are and give it to the crowd. I call this: creative self-affirmation. Creative self-affirmation is authentic self-expression.
US management guru Tom Peters has an uncompromising view of creative self-affirmation. The key to self-branding online, Peters claims, is to become ‘extraordinarily/noticeably good at something of use/significance’ in the real world and brand that. This is easy enough for a management guru to do – but what about the rest of us? This post dips into the philosophy of Martin Heidegger to define a reflective approach to personal authenticity online that is both easier and more natural than the path Peters suggests.
Authenticity shouldn’t be a chore. Being authentic is simply being human.
What does it mean to be you – the real you – online? Is it possible or desirable to express your real thoughts and feelings if you are developing a commercial image, or brand? Many people argue that, when it comes to online branding, commercial imperatives trump authenticity every time. The watchword of social media PR is caution: stay on message, avoid equivocal turns of phrase, keep the brand strategy in mind at all times. The upshot is that branded social media content often lacks a human voice. Like manikins in a store front window, branded content strikes a pose that reminds us of authenticity, but is incapable of offering up the real thing.
What about self-branding online? If cultivating a personal brand is subject to the same market imperatives as corporate PR, we should expect social media to be full of plastic people robotically spouting on point messaging. Some commentators argue that this is the way that things are headed. Geoff Livingstone, for instance, argues that ‘[t]he commercialization of the social web has reduced most communications to simply corporate or marketing initiatives’. Perhaps genuine authenticity is an outmoded virtue, as quaint as chivalry and just as absurd.
I don’t buy it. Every brand benefits from a human touch, no matter what product it’s selling. My thesis is that the best branded content online speaks of human values and experiences. It speaks of a human world, or set of worlds, and it makes us want to inhabit them.
Speak passionately about the world your brand tunes into. Open up a way of living and let us step inside. In short, be human. It shouldn’t be hard. Then again, as the German philosopher Martin Heidegger claimed, the experiences that are closest to us are often the hardest to understand.
Heidegger devoted his life to thinking about the essence, or nature, of the human being. In his magnum opus, Being and Time (1927), he developed a new way of thinking about the human being that revolutionalized twentieth century philosophy. Heidegger’s philosophy was informed by the phenomenology of his teacher and mentor Edmund Husserl, but it departed from the basic assumptions of Husserl’s work and broke out in an exciting new direction. Husserlian phenomenology was based in the Cartesian assumption that each human being is fundamentally an isolated consciousness, or subjectivity – an immaterial entity that looks out at the world through the portals of the eyes, engaging it as data flowing in through the senses. This way of thinking about human beings still prevails today. Heidegger, however, thought it was wrong.
It is true that philosophers tend to experience the world as isolated consciousnesses, Heidegger admitted. But this is only because philosophers typically go about reflecting on this matter by ceasing to engage with the world in a practical way. Yes, the world appears to be a stream of experiences ‘out there’ when we are sitting down observing it. But when we are caught up in the flow of practical activities like chopping wood, driving a car, or shooting hoops on a basketball court, our experience is quite different. We are embedded in a mobile continuum – the ‘life-world’. We exist in the moment, in the element of events, caught up in things, responding to and engaging with processes and flows, not casually observing them from a distance.
Heidegger argued that this experience of being in the middle of things is the normal human experience. Descartes and Husserl got it wrong. They should have put down their books and gone chopped some wood. It is only when we are in the flow of practical action that we become authentic human beings, responding to and engaging with a world that we are fully part of.
Heidegger coined the phrase ‘being-in-the-world’ to encapsulate this vision of the human being. To be human is to be absorbed in a world of practical action, a world that we understand intuitively, without needing to reflect on it. The ‘world’, in this case, is not just a place or location full of people and things. Worlds are defined by a way of life or being. Worlds reflect community traditions; therefore they are not private, but social and shared. We ‘know our way around’ a world by understanding the way that we are expected to engage with other people in it. Heidegger uses the example of a carpenter in a workshop to clarify this point. The carpenter may be working alone, but his carpentry speaks of a market of buyers; the wood and tools come from local suppliers; he works for love and money, in the first case remembering with affection his apprenticeship with his father and uncle, in the second case his family, who he wants to keep housed and fed.
There is a world of people and relationships that surrounds the carpenter’s work and gives it meaning. Heidegger calls this the ‘work-world’. In his practical action, the carpenter is part of the work-world, helping sustain it, nestled in its processes and flows.
There is more than just one world on earth. Most of us are tuned into multiple worlds. We pass in and out of different worlds in the course of the average day. The members of a professional basketball team, for example, co-create and sustain a shared world of training sessions, games, social functions and PR opportunities. The team members exist within the larger, encompassing, world of everyday life and activity. But when they head into the locker room to prepare for a game, they cease engaging with that larger world and tune into the flows and demands of the sporting world. Chances are that each of the players also has a personal world comprising family and love relationships. After the game, they tune out of the sporting world, perhaps tune into the world of the urban traffic system for a while as they drive home, then tune out of both these worlds as they walk through the door, hug their kids and ask their partner what’s for dinner.
Being-in-the-world is a matter of attuning oneself to shared practical environments, or worlds, each with its own set of dynamics and demands. This is what it means to be a human being. To be human is to be tuned into the world.
Tune up for authenticity
Heidegger’s philosophy not only clarifies what it means to be human, it clarifies what it means to speak in a human voice online. To be human is be tuned into a world of people, projects, values and interests. The key to being authentic online is to speak from your world and of that world as you post, tweet, share and RT. In this way, you express the real you: a unique social being doing their best to engage with real practical environments.
Let’s be honest: no one really wants to know what you ‘like’. Facebook’s ‘like’ button is designed to gather information on our preferences, not to enable us to express ourselves and unleash our person. If you want to be known by what you like and share, fine. But don’t expect people to get who you are and where you are coming from.
Giving up the real you takes work. It requires courage, creativity, care, and generosity in spades. The key is to tune into the flow of a life-world that you are passionately engaged in and express what it’s like to belong to it. Focus on things that make you come alive. Evoke what it’s like to flourish in the world. Speak of what is urgent, commanding, problematic, and important to the people who inhabit the world alongside you. Bring to light everything that inspires, enlightens, and compels them to be at their best. Most importantly, try to express how you feel as part of this world. What role do you play in the economy of social actions? Are you a warrior, hero, high priest or princesses, a happy servant, a struggling serf, a highwayman or paid assassin? What practical mode of engagement defines the being that you are in the world and how do you feel about it? This is what your friends and followers really want to know.
You should steer clear of clichés and stock standard forms of expression. The last thing you want is to sound like everyone else. Speaking in clichés is inauthentic. Clichés are easy to understand because everyone uses them. But the perspective they offer on life is a shallow and anonymous one, revealing more about what ‘everyone’ says and does than any personal point of view. When we are learning to adapt and engage with a new world, it makes sense to pay attention to clichés precisely because they reveal what everyone says and does. When we are trying to express our unique experience of the world, we need to be more creative with language.
What key words come to mind when you think about being in the world? What rhythms and patterns of speech encapsulate your unique experience of being? Jennifer Sertl, who is one of the most authentic online communicators I know, shares music videos from YouTube to express thoughts and feelings that can’t be conveyed in the clipped language of posts and tweets. There is a dynamic language of tension and affect that defines the world as you experience it. To communicate authentically online, you need to find ways to give voice to it.
Taking this approach to expressing yourself online can be challenging. It places demands on your friends and followers. Sometimes — this is inevitable — you’ll lose them. There is no guarantee that people will always know where you are coming from. However, they’ll know at least that you are coming from somewhere. Someplace real. A place where a individual human being engages with world of concerns. A standpoint from which it is possible to develop a genuine point of view.
‘Brand U’ should express the real you, not an abstract collage of preferences and perspectives. Next time you are about to post or tweet, take a moment to tune into the living world of practices and concerns that defines you as the being you are. Figure out what it is about this world that makes you come alive and try and channel that. Step out of the store front and simply be human.