12 August, 2015
Blaugust, day 12
Today we’ll discuss the issue of “projecting” in social media. Some people like to think of social media as this free and open communication medium where people can be themselves. The reality is that a lot of our images are carefully groomed and massaged to put our best foot forward.
When image matters most
The perfect example of of this is celebrities. A lot of older celebrities on social media rarely post directly. Instead, they generally have a “social media advisor” who will take content, edit it, and then post it for the celebrity as a function of public relations (PR). Why? Well, most of these older celebrities don’t understand the online medium, but they do understand PR. And, this hot new medium is one they want to use to stay “relevant”.
Same thing happens at companies. When you see a company tweet, it’s almost always a PR person who has crafted that tweet to meet a message standard set by the company. You’re rarely getting unvarnished information, even if it feels spontaneous because of social media. (Not to say there aren’t glorious exceptions to this rule.)
Projecting and interpreting projections
There’s the old joke that “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” It points out that social interactions tend to lack a lot of the physical cues of in-person communication. But, it’s not quite as utopian as you might think.
The reality is that a lot of people just make assumptions about the other person. We do often form an image in our mind about what another person looks like, even if we can’t see them. We might assume they conform to either majority characteristics (“this person is male because most people on this forum are male”), or match personal characteristics (“this person is caucasian because I’m caucasian”). In some ways this is good, because it can help overcome the “fear of the outsider” that plagues a lot of interaction, but it can be harmful if we depersonalize the person and assume characteristics.
There can be a more sinister side of this as well, where people will want to claim authority or expertise they don’t have. People generally give deference to authority, so someone claiming authority can short-circuit this process and gain attention they might not otherwise. And because of the concept of “social proof”, it’s easy to just go along with the crowd if someone is particularly convincing that they are an authority.
Little white lies
Related to this concept of projecting is how people present themselves. It’s common advice for people to “put their best foot forward”, meaning that they should present their best image. On social media, you can do that even easier than in the offline world. It’s easy to give people a small glimpse of your life and allow them to make assumptions. For example, I might say that I was backstage of the National Symphony Orchestra on Saturday at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts and watched Darth Vader conduct the orchestra. (True story!) If I just tell you that, what is your assumption? Maybe you think I was organizing something, or that I’m some sort of VIP.
The reality is that one of my local friends in in the 501st Legion and was on stage. I was lending a hand to the people in costume, since they tend to have limited vision and mobility. Also, that Darth Vader suit is really, really good at trapping heat.
But, it’s common for people to not give the whole truth, especially if limited to 140 characters. We want to project that we’re awesome, as sometimes setbacks are seen as personal flaws. And, even if you do have a problem, people who are aware of the audience might give pause. Say I’m having trouble at work with my boss. If I post about it, will that post get back to my boss and cause more problems? So, even if work is terrible and I really hate going into work every day, I’m unlikely to actually say that because of the consequences. But, as always, that doesn’t seem to stop some people.
Not the whole picture
So, the reality is always more complicated than what is presented. We might see a pretty image in front of us, but the reality is that sometimes people hide parts of themselves, either intentionally or not. We all want to be seen in the best light. Some beautiful people do understand this and want to look past the smiling faces and understand the pain beneath. But, by and large, social media isn’t necessarily giving us an accurate picture of what is going on. And that hurts how we communicate.