Saturday, January 15, 2011

Unmask the Virtual You

Sitting in the pew late on Christmas Eve, I heard the minister say in her sermon “…help us to know ourselves, the walls and barriers we erect, the masks we wear…”, and, at the risk of sacrilege, my mind turned to social media.
I reflected on the barriers and masks, and wondered whether social media perpetuates, or impedes, this behaviour.  Are we our authentic selves online?  Or do we hide behind avatars, fictional names, pictures of our cats? 
I recently read an ethnography of Second Life by Tom Boellstorff, where he researched the social development of the virtual world through his own avatar, Tom Bukowski.  Boellstorff distinguished between a virtual world, like Second Life, and a virtual space, like Facebook or MySpace.  He described the former as a world where participants could create an alternate reality for themselves.  The latter, according to Boellstorff, is a social networking space, meant to foster connections between ‘real’ people in the ‘real’ world through virtual means. 
So, in social media, the bottom line is to be yourself.  You can’t network, make ‘friends’ or impress a future employer behind Fluffy’s fuzzy face. 
A new cohort of over 70 students have started the post-grad certificate PR program at Humber College this month.  Some of them will be social media aficionados, with lots of Facebook friends, prolific tweets and maybe even an established blog.  Others will approach their social media journey differently.  Fearfully. Cautiously. Skeptically.
My job will be to show them how social media is the answer to a public relations practitioner’s prayers — interactive conversations with their target audience.  But to do so they need to be transparent, authentic, real.  A recent Globe and Mail article makes the point nicely. 
Based on my research of prominent social media thinkers and on PR industry feedback, here are some ways our future PR practitioners can keep it real online:
  1. Use your real name.  Be easy to find online.
  2. Use your real photo.  Replace the photo of your pet with your own pic, take off the sunglasses, and try a close up.  You may even want to invest in a professional head shot.
  3. Manage your online identity.  Address issues that matter to you. 
  4. Unlock your Twitter site.  A colleague warned me that if I put security features on Twitter, I won’t have any followers. 
  5. Use the privacy settings on Facebook.  Facebook can be a private space limited to friends and family, as long as there are other places where you engage online.  
Do you show the ‘real’ you online?


  1. Andrea,

    Congratulations on your first post. I'm looking forward to reading your blog! I really enjoyed this one as it was a throwback to Social Media class.

    I do show the 'real' me online. I agree wholeheartedly with the points you make, particularly the one on unlocking Twitter! Whenever I find locked Twitter accounts, I am hesitant to send a request to follow (unless I have an existing real life relationship with that person) because it is difficult to determine whether this person is worth following.

    Another interesting aspect of social media that could be valuable to this discussion is geotagging. I have just started using FourSquare and while others can probably determine the approximate area I live by the majority of my check-ins, there are quite a few users who have set up their OWN houses as a check-in venue. (If you search "house" in any city/town on Foursquare, you can find several _____'s houses...) This is where I personally draw the line between revealing and hiding my 'real' self online.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Stella. You made a great point about geotagging. I agree that there is a line we could cross by sharing too much information.

    By the way, I fixed my links so you can see them now!

  3. Excellent topic Andrea. Let me be the first to say that pictures of cats, avatars and locked Twitter profiles annoy me.

    To me it's a clear black or white; either choose to truly embraces the online space or choose not be involved. Meeting half-way doesn't show authenticity and commitment, and raises questions of identity in the online sphere.

    I hope the semester's going well.

  4. Great post, Andrea! There is certainly an art to portraying your true self through social media.

    You list some excellent recommendations, too. I especially like your point about addressing issues that matter to you. Communicating about topics that interest you can attract users with similar interests and build your network.