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Friday, March 24, 2023

Mr. Know-It-All on Honesty and Social Media

How true does my online persona have to be? I like to be really curated. But my significant other is very honest. Too honest if you ask me. Who’s right?

Should we be our raw authentic selves, or strike a pose? This feels like a quintessential dilemma of the digital age, but artists and philosophers have been grappling over this one for centuries, really.

And you will be happy to know that the artists generally side with you! As Oscar Wilde once quipped, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” Wilde meticulously crafted his image as a Victorian poncy intellectual aesthete, posing for brooding emo publicity shots in a huge fur-fringed coat. (The dude would have killed it on Snapchat.) For him, trying on new identities was a key part of self-expression, a cornerstone of civilization itself. “It is only shallow people,” he wrote, “who do not judge by appearances.” Curation FTW, so far.

And hey, the scientists and eggheads back you up too. William James—a guy who is often called “the father of American psychology”—argued that we contain many selves and break them out in different circumstances. “Properly speaking, a man has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognize him,” he mused. Decades later, the sociologist Erving Goffman described everyday life as a theater performance: We prepare ourselves in private backstage, then jump frontstage to perform. When context changes, so do we. Me, when I hang out with old friends, I’m a looser guy, dropping exuberantly filthy curse words. On Twitter I’m a cheerful, PG-rated Mr. Science Journalist, marveling gee-whiz at the magisteria of human knowledge.

Which one is the “real” me? Both! “What’s wrong with identity play?” says Nancy Baym, a social scientist with Microsoft Research who just published Playing to the Crowd, a book about how musicians manage their online identities (tl;dr: they struggle with this too). Curating our identities on Pinterest or Facebook is a way to figure out who we are, what selves we contain, Baym says. There isn’t only one “authentic” you.

Now, one can, of course, go overboard with curation. Maybe you’re spending hours on joyless personal upkeep just to look enviable and amass followers. “Are you promoting these impossible ideals?” asks Judith Donath, author of The Social Machine and an adviser at Harvard’s Berkman Center. If so, I’m siding with your partner: That way madness lies. Just behold the grim parade of failed would-be “influencers” on YouTube and Instagram, frantically deforming their lives in the endless hunt for clicks. Don’t turn yourself into a brand.

While we’re being fair to your partner, let’s also note that there’s value in being candid. When we share the truth of our lives online, “it’s a signal of trust,” Donath notes. It draws people closer. And when it comes to any online situation where there’s a transaction at hand—renting an Airbnb, say—basic honesty is the best policy. (The same with dating sites. Gentle white lies are common—and, alas, pretty gendered, with women lying about being thinner, men about being taller, studies show—but since the goal is to meet F2F, curation here may turn around and bite you.)

The bottom line? In moderation, curate away. Goffman had this right: Nourish your private moments, your life out of the spotlight—but enjoy each turn upon the stage.

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