Studying the impact of innovation on business and society

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.

Connect with Brian Solis: Twitter, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Facebook

Pre-order the next book, Engage!

Click the image below to get the current book, poster, or the iPhone app:

Image Credit: Shutterstock

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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Join Our Mailing List

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Stay Connected