The Myth of Online Transparency

Posted by on Nov 17, 2011 | 6 comments

A few years ago, an eternity in internet years, there was a lot of chatter about “lifestreaming,” which basically meant providing a non-stop voyeuristic window into the minutiae of your daily life. People could “subscribe” to you and see whatever you were doing. Some folks took it to extremes and even filmed themselves while asleep.

Mercifully, the concept petered out under the weight of its own stupidity, but in some ways it is still with us in the form of twitter, facebook and location-based services. A recent change to facebook enabled users to broadcast the news articles they were reading, the music they were listening to via Spotify and, of course, the places they visited. In my personal facebook stream, I notice that only a few friends are doing this (see how I avoided saying “taking advantage of” just there?) and it got me wondering why.

One of the oft-spouted tenets of social media-dom is the importance of  transparency in all interactions, whether on the personal level or among businesses. For individuals, tending to one’s “personal brand” has become a cottage industry online. But what does that really imply? A brand, as I define it, is what surrounds a sales pitch and differentiates you from the other guy. Companies go to great lengths to define their brands in the minds of consumers using vivid language, imagery and experiences, all in the service of selling you something. Positive attributes are emphasized and negative ones are never even contemplated. Coca Cola might have a tough time squaring the immeasurable enjoyment and life-altering experiences contained inside one of their cans with all that pesky teeth rotting and onset of diabetes.

So, then, the same must be true of one’s personal brand, right? Which, of course, gives the lie to transparency online. Everyone’s streamed online life is full of glamourous trips, sunset photos, magical dinners, songs from obscure Norwegian bands and moments of clarity elucidated in some Paulo Coehlo quote. No arguments with spouses, frustration with the kids’ poor behavior or disappointment at being passed over for that work promotion by the kiss ass who goofs off all day.

We live in a start-up culture where we put on our sales face all the time since we never know who might be watching. Woe to he who slips up and posts the drunken rant. There is no delete button on the internet, as we all know. Those of us who choose to live some portion of our lives online are all selling ourselves to some unknown potential client. All of which, I suppose, reinforces the point I have been making on this blog and in public speaking events since I got into this game: there is about an eye dropper’s amount of difference between our online lives and our offline ones.

I recently asked someone I have never actually met, but “know” on Facebook, (another weird by-product of the internet, but maybe just an updated version of the pen pal) what had motivated her to stream her Spotify selections. She confessed to me that she self-edits and doesn’t share EVERYTHING she’s listening to in her news feed. She leaves out songs that might be seen as offensive or “trashy.” Of course she does. No one will ADMIT to listening to Air Supply. (I have no idea if she does or not, but it was the lamest thing that occurred to me as I write this. Hey, I know what you’re thinking but I don’t listen to Air Supply, either.)

I hear many rail against the TMI culture of the internet using the tired argument that no one really cares about every detail of your life. I might argue that the REAL problem is not too much candor, but not enough.

Would love to hear what you think. Please post your thoughts in the comments section.

6 Responses to “The Myth of Online Transparency”

  1. Matthew, from someone that shares probably a bit too much of her personal life, I think transparency is misunderstood and at many times overrated. I think we need to first assess our business and have clear goals and strategies for using social media for business purposes. Is it just another marketing tool where we show a more “personal side”? or are we sharing too much?
    Over-sharing may actually dilute our brand and as much as people want to do business with other people, not just businesses, there is no need to share where you are every minute of the day.
    Great food for thought!

    • Ines-

      You’re right, of course. Again, I think just as we edit ourselves in interpersonal interactions, so, too we edit ourselves online. I have always said there is nothing “new” about new media. But that is not always a popular position to take.

      Thanks a lot for your comment.

      • Nope. Nothing new about new media except the messaging and self-advertisement functions are extremely easy to use, very portable, and fun. They’re also extremely expensive — add the price of two computers and two online accounts to your cost for sending “free” email and it won’t seem quite so free anymore.

  2. This is a great post, Matthew, and had me thinking about your points throughout the day. I wrote a blog for Search Engine People a few months ago that addresses some of your thoughts on personal branding, Exposed: I Don’t Need a Personal Brand”, that you may want to check out.

    In regards to transparency, I agree that we could use a lot more candor in the way we present ourselves. My LinkedIn profile talks about my love of the Beastie Boys and cupcakes. By sharing these parts of who I am, I have had unlikely people connect with me and develop professional relationships because it showed my human side. Besides, who doesn’t smile when they think of cupcakes?!

    That said, I don’t think that we need to present everything about ourselves to the public.I keep most of my family life private from my public life. I have always been that way because I don’t want the public to know things that could ever endanger their safety or privacy. Regardless of what marketing strategy I put behind marking myself, I also don’t broadcast my arguments, speak ill of my competitors, or moan about difficult clients online because I don’t do that offline either.

    A long time ago, way before social media, I got in a fight with a school friend. I must have been 8 or 9 years old. I wrote her a scathing letter of how much she hurt me and that I now “hated” her. Before heading off to school the next day with intentions of giving my new “enemy” the letter, my mother stopped me at the front door and was holding it in her hand. She told me she found it and that it was up to me whether I would actually give it to her or not. She explained that I should think twice, because once I put it in writing, I could never take the words back. Even if I changed my mind and became friends with her again (as I most certainly did), the relationship would never be the same. I have to say, this lesson has always stayed with me and I was happy I didn’t give her that letter.

    We may have a goofball at the office that annoys us, a boss that makes us want to pull out our hair, or a disappointment in how our child is behaving – but once you put those words in writing, you can not take them back. We have a responsibility to ourselves to choose them wisely.

    Again, what a great article with lots to think about. Thanks for starting this conversation, Matthew!

    • That’s a great story, Kimberly. It’s true- you cannot unring the bell.

      My whole argument is the notion of “transparency” is somewhat overstated by folks in my industry and, therefore, misinterpreted by a lot of people who are NOT in my industry.

      Thanks for your comment.

      • Clothing was invented to enhance personal appeal beyond the merely physical. Dress (or veil) yourself artfully and well …. the results may surprise you. What is art, after all, but an extremely thoughtful and difficult performance that … reveals the soul?

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