When I was at school a friend of mine decided he liked a girl who was into Depeche Mode. He asked me to tell him all about Depeche Mode, and he spent a couple of days educating himself in the ways of Dave Gahan and his leather trousers. His newly acquired Depeche Mode knowledge, I’m sad to say, got him nowhere.
I was reminded of this when I read this piece about the top 20 Facebook lies, because there at 18 is “Edit things you like to have more in common with someone you like”. Other Facebook fibs include “Edit books/movies/music to look a bit cooler” and “Remove ‘ugly’ photos”.
Strictly speaking I suppose some of these are lies, in the same way that me writing a post about Facebook rather than the bow ties I’ve just been browsing is a “lie”. But most of them seem harmless, and part of the process of self-presentation and self-editing we go through every day of our lives. Is it surprising? Well, no unless you’ve been living on Mars with only back issues of Fast Company to read. Then you might think that Facebook is a haven of transparency and authenticity, the place where the authentic voice of the consumer can finally be heard. Which of course it’s not: Facebook is about presenting oneself, just like getting dressed or having a conversation is.
“You don’t look anything like your profile picture!”
Does this matter for social media research? Probably not. Like the two men running from a bear, social media research doesn’t have to be the authentic voice of the consumer, it just has to be more authentic than the competition, and if the competition is a typical survey then it might well be. And besides, how people present themselves is interesting!
In fact, maybe we’re barking up the wrong tree with all this “authenticity” business anyway. For a long time researchers – not to mention psychiatrists – have imagined that there’s a real, authentic, individual self lurking just out of sight of conventional techniques. An association of “deeper” and “truer” is baked into the psyche of researchers. But what if it’s all hokum, and authenticity is as real as a unicorn?
We know that the reasons we give for decisions are often convincing post-rationalisations, edited stories like status updates or Facebook tastes which cover up decisions based on habit, copying or unconscious response to stimulus. Maybe our sense of a ‘real self’ – our own or others’ – is simply the aggregation of all these post-rationalisations, the most convincing story about ourselves that we can tell (it has to be convincing, since we’re the ones it’s trying to convince!).
That wouldn’t make one’s sense of self any less vivid. But it would imply that the way to get at “authenticity” would be to observe, intervene and experiment – not to probe or ask. And it would suggest that worrying about ‘lying’ on Facebook isn’t really an issue!