Perception is a framing device. Reality is a subjective interpretation of a mysterious truth. The world that each one of us knows is formed by the individual experiences that we have been through, the state of our minds/bodies, our interactions with others, and most importantly our decisions on how our inside worlds perceive the events of the outside world.

The self that we present outwardly then, whether in person or on social media, is merely reflective of how we frame our identities.

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I am part of a generation that has been identified by society as Millennials, roughly meaning those born between 1980 and 1995. As a result, the tools in which I present myself to the world have changed from the ones employed by Generation X, just as their tools were different from the Baby Boomers. What I’m arguing here is that while it’s become common to blast the very idea of social media, to attack the way that Millennials market their identity as a brand, it’s hypocritical — because self-marketing is nothing new. In fact, it’s been a part of society since society has existed.

Need evidence? Here are a few example questions that demonstrate how prior generations did (and do) just as much self-marketing as Millennials:

  • If one isn’t self-marketing, then why does one carry a business card?
  • What makes a person decided to wear one shirt over another?
  • On one’s first date with a potential soulmate, why does one choose a specific restaurant instead of another?
  • Why does one tell that certain story to certain people at certain parties, instead of the other story that one tells at other parties?

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The answer to all of these situations is the same. Because every time human beings interact with others, we are marketing ourselves. We are marketing our story, our style, our sense of humor, our pathos, our musical taste, our favorite movies. Social networking is just an outgrowth of that. In order to succeed in today’s society, a person’s internet presence has become a part of their wardrobe.

But what’s important here as we create our identities, as we market our brand, is that we focus on remaining genuine.

I’ll come back to that.

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A person’s “identity” is an accumulation of stories that a person writes for oneself, the inspiration for these stories cherry picked from real events. We choose which stories from our past represent who we are, as opposed to the stories that for whatever reason we chose to leave behind.

Identity is also a collection of chosen attributes, based on influences from the outside world. There’s a reason that when a person steps out the front door, they choose certain clothes. There’s a reason that we choose our preferred hairstyles, or why we alternate between different styles of speaking when talking to a grandparent or a high school friend.

The internet makes everything public on a scale beyond any media form from the past, and so it has broadened our notion of identity. Today, identity is defined not just by what we wear on our bodies, what music we listen to, or what decorations we hang on our walls, but also by how we represent ourselves on social media. What pictures do we pin up on Instagram — political signs, homemade food, cats, travel photos?  What do we post on our blogs? The decisions that we make are not small: these pictures, blogs, Tweets and pins will define our identity to everyone we know, all of whom will see these tokens of us on their smartphones, tablets, and laptops.

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That’s what our identities are, really: a framing of the events of our lives, collected in the forms we choose to put them into, combined with a collection of items — be they physical items, tastes in music, or social networking profiles — that we put out there to represent ourselves. By doing this, we create a self outside of the self. When an artist paints on a canvas, he is creating an impression of himself that exists outside of his physical body. When a politician grabs the microphone, he plays a certain role that he believes will get him elected.  We’re all actors.

What matters isn’t the fact that we’re acting, as that is unavoidable. Instead, what we need to focus on—for the sake of our happiness, strength, and growth—is ensuring that our performances always, always come from somewhere genuine. Our outward identities should genuinely reflect our inward identities.

Because if the internet is an outgrowth of identity, then it plays by the same rules.

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Charlatans who play a false role online will not find happiness or self-satisfaction, as the disparities between their minds and their masks will drive them off the cliff of an identity crisis. Appreciation from others means nothing when the person they’re appreciating isn’t really you.

In order to find happiness and have valuable relationships, the key factor is that one’s public face should always be authentic to who that person is on the inside. Genuineness is more important than anything else. People can tell when someone is being honest. We all like honesty.

So when curating content from across the internet to create our social identities, when picking images that best represent who we are, when writing blogs, updates, and tweets, it’s important that we strive for authenticity. It’s important that we remain raw, real, true to the private inner being that bangs on the walls of one’s subconscious when it isn’t being paid attention to.

Be real. Always.

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23 thoughts on “Your Online Identity Matters More Than You Think.

  1. In a blogging context, I find it very easy to see the genuine people, those with a passion for what they publish and how they communicate with others, I think we are very lucky to have this platform and eventually those who are ‘real’ will always gravitate to each other and form friendships whilst those acting will look on envious.

    • Ditto, and I’m glad to hear that we’re in agreement! One of my favorite things about the blogging community is the passion you can find in people’s posts, the outpouring of “self-ness” as people spill themselves onto the keyboard. Great stuff!

  2. What a fascinating way to view social media! I’d realized before that our online presence is an extension our inner and outer selves, but I’d never perceived it in ways which you enabled us to do so. And I couldn’t stress enough the importance of being genuine, in our personal lives and online. Thank you, Nicholas. Beautiful and very thought out, as always.:)

  3. Wow! What a profound post! I’m actually learning these concepts in my Sociology course this semester. Matters of the mind are so intriguing. Thanks for sharing this important information! 🙂

    • Thank you for the kind words, sir! Much appreciated. Yes, it’s fascinating how the internet both changes everything – and at the same time, is just an extension of concepts that already define who we are and how we interact with the world. So many layers to it!

      • You’re welcome! And it’s so sad how we get so caught up in our virtual selves. We lose ourselves in it all. This technological era makes us very dependent and even obsessed with the internet. There are several versions of oneself that may consist of the layers you speak of.

  4. I agree–people have always projected an image. One of the classic references to this is How to Win Friends and Influence People. And the advice given was sterling: don’t just project being a better person–actually become one. Be the sort of person others like to be around. I think it applies to online communications as well as interpersonal. 🙂

  5. I guess it’s a matter of degree, the marketing, the projection of an image, the time we spend grooming that image that characterizes the current social networking culture. Then again, I’m an old guy. But quality and sincerity come through in any medium, art when it happens is beyond an individual or projected image. And of course the need to make a living is a constant.

    • All very true. I’ll admit I’m not the most digitally connected person in the world — I mean, I still cling onto my old flip phone, and never want to let go! But still, I think that the self-marketing of today isn’t actually so different from any other form of self-marketing, at its essence. Business cards, hairstyles, and clothing styles have always been around, though the internet opens up new avenues. But I agree, sincerity does come through in any medium, and that’s the quality that I think needs to remain at the forefront.

      • Agree. But, you’ve touched on something very significant that is changing in people’s psychology – except of course for the flip-phone holdouts.

      • You and I more alike than we knew.:) Funny story, too, because as of a couple months ago, I also clung onto an old-style flip phone. My wife surprised me one day with an Android and I love it! It’s nothing too fancy, but it does allow me to stay current on social media throughout the day, instead of spending many hours every morning catching up.

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