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Transparent, Online, You

I’ll ask you a question, and I want you to answer it truthfully: when people talk to you online, to whom are they really speaking to? A follow-up question: are you the same human on the web as you are in-person?

It’s really easy to hide behind a mask online. The internet — a medium for community and communication — becomes the mask, and our message isn’t hindered by the tell-tale limitations of our physical selves. Without body language, eye contact and perhaps, the shiver of our voices for us to become remiss about, it’s tempting for many to portray an entirely different version of ourselves on the web. This disconnect is disastrous — especially if this alter-ego looks almost exactly like the real you.

Who are you?

You can’t call yourself the CEO of a company if you aren’t one. You can’t say that you’ve worked for Google if you’ve never even had an interview with them. You can’t act like you’ve gone to the moon and back if all you’ve done is flown a helicopter. It’s tempting to say one thing if you’ve promised yourself you’re going to have done it. It seems harmless to say things early so you can boost your social clout in the short-term. But how then are you going to explain yourself when people start asking about it now? More lies only get deeper and deeper.

It’s easy to dig yourself out of this trench of untruths: be honest. When you introduce yourself online (be it through a bio or an email) imagine yourself saying it aloud and confidently to the person you’re addressing. If you can’t imagine yourself doing the latter — moreso, not doing it at all — you’re not being honest enough. When you write about yourself, don’t think about how you want others to think about you. Nor, don’t think about what makes you look good. Instead, focus on getting your writing right.

What do you do?

Claiming who you are on the internet is only one facet of your virtual you. It’s how you portray yourself online that people will really start to think about who you are. So, how should one behave on the internet? I’ve written about this before — on authentic leadership for an interview with the CEO of Volley, Mike Murchison:

“There’s so much bullshit on the internet today, and there’s so much expectation around specific marketing messages, and specific voices that you have to speak through” Mike says to me— and I agree. Authenticity is key to earning trust with people, and it’s about owning your words, actions and values— that is, to ‘live out loud’, and be yourself.

In other words, you have to be transparent online. Why? Because it gets quite awkward if the person people see online turns out to be much different in real life. Professionally, it’s unprofessional: what if a recruiter from that big-name company you’ve always dreamed of working in expects this inspiring, empowering civil rights activist when instead they get a person who’s actually done nothing at all? It’s career-damaging — and trust is one of the hardest things to mend next to a broken mirror.

How can I help?

Pre-internet, one of the earliest forms of mass-collaboration was during the agricultural age. According to Sapiens, farmers helped other farmers not for the purpose of barter, but for survival. The premise was that they did it without the condition of any form of payment, but there was a polite expectation that those they helped would help them too. Because if they don’t, who’s going to help them back when their farm’s drying out during the off-season? And vice-versa: how can another farmer help you if they’re suffering during their dry times?

On the web, you reap what you sow. There’s this quote by Frank Chimero: “Money is circulated. Time is spent.” — it’s an apt description of how one should value the work they do for others. Because on the web, the transactions made in our social networks don’t use Dollars, Euros or Yuan — but instead, with kindness, support, and collaboration. We sacrifice our time as a gift for others, and in exchange, we hope they do the same for us.

Give more than you expect to receive — but note that it all adds up. A simple message of support for your favorite independent artist or even a pro-bono offer of some of your talent can easily be reciprocated back. Much more if you do the same for many others. You may find yourself one day in need only to discover a wholesome surprise of an online network of peers helping you out. The internet is a place of giving, and many hands can help each other grow — it is a community after all.

Why are you here?

One of the most exciting (if not, perhaps the most meaningful) ways of being yourself online is telling others about what you enjoy. And that’s not limited to your interests, hobbies or passions — it includes your dreams, goals, or what you want to be in the far future.

It’s hugely beneficial because not only does it tell others about your intentions, but it also forms a niche network of friends that you can only make online. These are the people who will support you from day one, help build your career, or even help you grow not just professionally, but also personally. They’re doing it not just because they want those things too, but also because you all share a common language, and you all want to reach those same goals too.

There’s a reason you’ve put yourself forward on the web — the world’s stage — and for sure it isn’t about hiding yourself behind a mask. When you portray yourself, you have to make sure that your intentions are clear, that you claim to be who you are, and that you’re doing things that only the real you would do. Because people will be looking for you — the version of yourself that’s the transparent, online you.

So I’ll ask the questions again, and hopefully by now you’ve got better answers: when people talk to you online, to whom are they really speaking to?

Are you the same human on the web as you are in-person?