Personal vs Personable
I started writing this in April. It's taken me 4 months of parsing, debating, thinking, and rethinking.
There is a fine line we all walk in this social media era of instant sharing, and it seems to me that it's a huge struggle for most people to know how to engage with an invisible peer group.
In the early days of blogging (and the few social media platforms that existed online), the breakout stars were sharing intimate details about their lives that we couldn't believe someone would just show to the ENTIRE internet. And we didn't even have a no-see monkey emoji to protect us.
A generation of oversharing was born.
Regular people* were becoming pseudo celebs giving us the details of their depression, their divorces, their dalliances, their kids' poop stories, and all the good lifetime drama stuff. Comments were true (and intense) discussion forums. We could now connect with people who shared the same problems and weird interests - or we could lurk, becoming anonymous voyeurs to the mundane, the tragic, or the truly messed up. It felt good, both the unloading and the stalking of the not-very-secret anymore.
As social media has grown up and stretched its tendrils into every aspect of our lives, this confessional formula seems to have become the default for engagement. And I think it's detrimental - not just for the kids that have grown up with a completely different concept of privacy, but for all of us. The authenticity of our lives shouldn't be marketable or viral.
Yes we can be honest, we can spread awareness, we can normalize, but we shouldn't be using our social media as therapy. Relying on validation or comfort from virtual strangers isn't a sustainable solution, its only a bandaid for our fragile self-esteem. Inner work doesn't get done with an audience, it gets done behind the scenes with support people in a community of trust - genuine real life, in the flesh, ugly crying face, big sloppy hug connections. It gets done with spoken conversations, confidences, apologies and admissions - in meditative moments and in the humility of asking for help. I know I sound like a repressive luddite, but we've even got FB telling us social media isn't good for our mental health. (And since I hate FB, I'll link to a BBC article reviewing studies discussing the same thing.)
Aside from the effects on mental health, it's also hard to know when the story is not ours to tell. We should afford a modicum of privacy for our close relationships, particularly young children. I see so many children that don't get to choose what's shared about them online, not because they are unwilling, but because they do not understand what is happening and the concept of "a screenshot is forever." I honestly cannot imagine growing up with a digital footprint not of my own making.
In a rare twist, I've decided to be proactive instead of just complaining. I want to talk about how to be personable and still true to ourselves online. I'm not advocating fake happiness - you know I cannot stand chirpy and inane (unless that's your true and natural self #youdoyou). But I am advocating knowing when to step away and reconnect with yourself and your people. Social media is here to stay and it can wait until you're ready. Give yourself permission not to care about it. We are so inundated with content that we can't keep up or keep track without feeling overwhelmed. I took the longest break that I've ever taken from instagram this summer because I needed it. And no one noticed, the world kept turning, and I didn't need to explain my absence! Because it's my life.
It is possible to be personable and interesting online without disclosing all of the scandalous details. It's called having a point of view. Whether that view is snarky, edgy, nerdy, informative, humorous, fanciful, or controversial - people respond to knowing where you stand about a topic, an event, or what time of day you eat dinner (seriously, ask this sometime and you will get a monster debate about the correct time).
Share the highlights and the embarrassing stuff of no consequence, or share the super important life-changing stuff that you've processed and can talk about constructively. There are powerful stories to be told, and the way we tell them is a tool to being heard. Start listening and stop broadcasting - learning about other people is going to help you shape and form your outlook and your voice. Your experiences, in your voice and perspective, will convey YOUR personality and the like-minded people will find you that way. You don't have to bleed for people for them to know you are being real. You can do it by having an opinion and choosing what to share about your life, and you can be negative. Ladies, it is totally allowed. You can even be angry.
Often, you don't even notice the people that are really skilled at this, because they have strong clear voices that are relatable and feel familiar to you - those people you are sure you would be friends with if you only knew each other in real life. Nothing feels forced or calculated because they are being themselves. They share a lot, but if you start paying attention you'll notice how much they are not telling. I only started noticing this about 5 years ago after I read an interview with the husband of a really famous blogger. He was asked how he feels about his wife talking about their relationship online, and he basically said the same thing, that his wife was as talented at sharing as she was at withholding private information from her audience. And I have become friends in the last few years with several people that I see navigating the personal struggles of their lives deftly online in front of many different audiences. Having a private life and being an engaging contributor to social media are not mutually exclusive conditions.
I know that self-editing doesn't come naturally to most people (as a life-long random blurter trying to be funny I can testify that this is true), but I think it's a skill worth developing. And not just for online, for yourself. Finding your inner voice - that thing that reflects you to your core is pretty much our life's work. I'm not just talking about writing captions. It's hard work - it's much easier to sink into bland indifference - but it's perhaps more rewarding and affirming to feel comfortable with who you are, than to count up the likes you do or do not have.
* beautiful and affluent people, or just funny enough to make up if they lacked the first two.
Special thanks to Skye (@georgianlondon) for looking this over and providing such great insight about this topic over the last few months. Our daily dm chats would be an awesome blog. Just sayin.