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Social Media Isn’t Faking It: It’s Making It

collage of different colors of a woman holding a finger to her lips. she is surrounded by social media logos.

Social Media Isn’t Faking It: It’s Making It

Self-presentation online isn’t that much different than what we do everyday. Why is there so much angst about it?

Folklore is emerging in our culture: Social media is fake; Everything about it isn’t real. The doctored pictures, the curated content, the sappy attitudes, are all a ploy to inspire envy and awe in our friends, family and acquaintances. We are accepting this tale of “fake” without question.

This seems curious to me. As a psychology person, I am aware we all have public personas. We each have a persona for work, a persona for friends and even a persona for “running errands.” Different situations call for different behaviors. So when writers get online to further this folklore of the “fake” social media profile, I get a bit annoyed.

“Oh!” But you, of the Facebook-Furious, may respond. “But there are people who fake entire vacations online! Women with violent husbands who paint perfect pictures of their family life!” (This man hasn’t been convicted of anything yet, btw. The posting of that article is jumping the gun at best.)

Yes, this is true. Illusions surface every so often. It sucks to find out life isn’t as peachy as it seems for friends and family. Being duped feels awful. But are we always duped by social media profiles as the folklore says we are?

White male, 30s, standing in front of lights and a camera with a green screen behind him

The extremes are distinguishable from the ordinary act of what social psychologists call “impression management.” Self-presentation is a normal behavior that we engage in everyday, offline or online. Psychologists say people put forth a public image not only to gain some benefit from it but to also convince themselves of the person they want to become. “Fake it until you make it” is a common mantra in recovery circles which helps those who aren’t convinced of their own power to change their lives to go through the motions of sobriety until they feel like “sober” is part of who they are as a person.

Not all of us are faking it until we’re making it, though. We’re simply being pleasant. We’re sharing our lives in the same manner we’d share it with co-workers or neighbors. We save the gory details, usually, for those people who are close to us.

Ever notice how odd it feels when we hear personal details from strangers or acquaintances? When the neighbor starts bending your ear in the grocery store about his son’s drug problem, you just want to duck behind the toilet paper display. This aversion is normal; we’re not equipped with enough familiarity with the speaker to listen well or respond constructively, and seeing other humans in vulnerable states is uncomfortable. We know this, so instinctively we adjust our own self-presentation to avoid socially awkward situations.

One critique of our online impression management I can get is that the lack of face-to-face interaction somewhat changes our behaviors. Studies show interactions without eye contact between participants can go quite differently than the same interaction does in person. We all have felt this pressure. We have kept our mouths shut when in our boss’s presence, opting to send her an email instead. Social psychology as a field of study is quite curious about this phenomenon, with many researchers wondering if a mental and physical (i.e., brain pathways) difference exists between text and speech or online and offline self-presentation.

As online interactions become an assumed part of the culture (they aren’t yet, actually), perhaps our self-presentation techniques will become more consistent between online and offline interactions. We’re still in the baby-steps stages of this revolution; it will take several more decades of using these tools before we can be confident in any statements about how these tools influence our behavior. So far I haven’t seen anything ground-breaking. Social media behavior is simply our social behavior. Facebook isn’t turning us all into liars. Twitter isn’t making us into social justice warriors. We are using the tools just like we use our clothes, our cars, our spouses or our business cards: as image-makers. Humans do this. It’s OK. We will probably always do this, to some extent, no matter how evolved we become. 100% sincerity is not only inconvenient most of the time, it can get us into some deep trouble. The folklore of “fake” social media is just a story, up there with old wives tales and fishing epics. You’re fine. Post away.

 

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Collage Image by Geralt on Pixabay

Green Screen Photo by Sjoerd Van Oosten on Flickr

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