Throughout this year I have had many of my university students come up to me and ask something along the lines of “how can I stand out online?” While this is a broad question, the answer contains the following: be authentic and strategic. I know it sounds a bit cryptic but what does it mean to be authentic online? What does it mean to be strategic online? How can these two aspects help to propel you through life? Through research, my own experiences and an interview with luxury car, tech and lifestyle blogger Andrea Hobbs, I will explore how authenticity and strategy can help oneself grow and be successful.
Let’s start with authenticity. It is a hard thing to define. Kernis and Goldman (2006) say authenticity is the autonomous and unrestricted operation of one’s ‘true self’ within all facets of daily life. That is to say, one is able to express their ‘true self’ without being impeded by other parties.
The true self, from this perspective, reflects the characteristics, traits, and roles that people believe are indicative of who they truly are, regardless of whether those characteristics, traits, and roles are always expressed outwardly or not.
Williams & Vess, 2016
As discussed above, the ‘true self’ is the core of authenticity but it is also subjective to each individual who ultimately have the agency to express it externally, internalise it and/or hide behind a façade. Authenticity is the willingness to show your ‘true self’. The ability to be somewhat vulnerable and show who you truly are. Be comfortable in one’s skin if I may be cliché.
In my interview with Andrea Hobbs, she explains why authenticity is important to her with her personal brand. For her, most initial communications with her clients are not face-to-face. Therefore, her clients have to base who she is on what she presents via social media and digital communications. If she seemed different in real life than her online self, then this may impact her work – similarly to how going to a job interview and not being the same person who you claimed to be on your CV could affect you. Selling someone that you are your presented self (via your resumé or an online persona) comes with expectations that if are misaligned from the real you can often lead to disappointment and a lack of trust.
Essentially what Andrea is describing here is ‘stage management’. Knowing Andrea personally, I know that she considers and ensures that the way she portrays herself online is the same as in real life. Smith and Watson (2013) reflect upon this phenomenon citing Jeff Pooley (2011) who in today’s world describe authenticity as calculated and performative. While it could be argued that authenticity and the performance of self are on opposite sides of a spectrum – some may ask that if one has to ‘perform’ authentic then are they actually being authentic? – I would contend that they are complimentary of each other. Performance of self conveys authenticity with a layer of strategy on top to consider what degree or what aspects or even where the ‘true self’ is shown – the aforementioned ‘stage management’.
Judith Bulter’s theory of performativity plays a major role in the underlying principles of the performance of self. Cover (2013) discusses how Bulter describes ‘self’ is an effect of performance in and through language, discourse and culture – including day-to-day online routines. “In other words, online social networking behaviour is as performative as ‘real life’ acts, and just as equally implies a stabilised core inner self behind the profile” (Cover, 2013, pp. 56)
Bulter (1993) highlights that performativity and therefore, the projection of ‘self’, is not obtained from a singular strategic act but rather by reiterative actions. For example, you may post regular movie reviews and your friends may perceive you as a movie buff but if you just post one movie review then they may not think of you as a movie buff to such a degree. Perhaps strategically changing your profile picture or your cover photo to a shot from a famous movie or sharing movie trailers may also help in your projection of self as a movie buff.
A great example of this strategic performance can be seen on a much bigger scale in celebrity culture. Celebrities perform in their own domain to what they are famous by. They also project themselves through various media forms including interviews, commercials and events usually with the support of public relations groups. (Marshall, 2010 pp.39) While it may feel like we are at the opposite end of the status spectrum compared to celebrities, social media and the news feed has essentially made us celebrities in our network of ‘friends’. Moreover, in the land of the presentational media there is a lot that we can learn from celebrities and the performance of self. (Marshall, 2010, pp. 45)
Marshall (2010, pp. 39) through the work of Goffman (1959) suggests that the “performance of self is a conscious act by an individual requiring well thought-out staging to maintain the self.” While this derives from a time before the internet, it is clear to see how this performance of self can now be seen in the online setting. Profiles, images, messages, statuses and the sharing of posts are all props of the stage to create the idea of one’s ‘self’ across various social networking sites. (Marshall, 2010, pp. 40) Furthermore, never has there been a greater understanding of audience to allow for better management in the performance of self.
Self-production is the very core of celebrity activity and it now serves as a rubric and template for the organisation and production of the on-line self which has become at the very least an important component of our presentation of ourselves to the world.
Marshall, 2010, pp.39
While Marshall focuses on celebrities, understanding the performance of self makes us more conscious, not only of careful staging that is around us but also of our profiles and performance. For example, in one of my first blogs I discussed the various different online personas that I have. Each one is as valid as the other and each one is an authentic aspect of who I am, however, each profile is a strategic presentation with different objectives and audiences.
Being strategic online involves time and conscious construction. Things as simple as what time you post to what you post and how often you post all fall into an online strategy. Despite there being no definite answers to these, it ultimately depends on what you want to achieve and who your target audience is. At is core, objectives and target audiences are the guiding principles of digital marketing and it seems funny how these no longer are just applied to big companies but now also can impact at a personal level.
Going back to the catalyst question, (it’s “how can I stand out online?” to save you scrolling up) for most of my students they ask this with the objective of networking and/or job opportunities in mind – how to stand out in a saturated market. Already there we can see what wants to be achieved and who the target audience is – jobs and potential employers.
In today’s age, employers and recruiters are looking at social media profiles as a way of finding out more about potential employees. According to a study by Career Builder, 69% of employers are using search engines and 70% are searching social media profiles to research candidates. They may be there to see who you are or maybe they are looking to see if you have the digital competencies they are looking for. However, I was surprised when teaching a digital media that many university students had not strategically considered their online presence – most of whom are majoring in media studies, communications, public relations and journalism!
So how can you be strategic about your online presence and stand out? Well going back to my interview with Andrea, she talks about how she wanted to work in marketing and she missed out on a internship with Google and knocked back on other jobs. Despite her setbacks she kept positive and decided to do something about it. She made herself a blog to write about the things she was interested in and show that she had the competencies (and the passion) to work in the fields of tech and marketing.
After all action speaks louder than words. Videos or blogs that demonstrates your passion and expertise in a field of work will speak louder than what your resumé ever could. It will help you stand out from the pack and it might even break the ice. My friend Liz for example, went into a job interview where they had looked at her blog and it helped the employer bring up talking points that got her the job. That is to say, you should probably include your blog website in your resumé.
As discussed earlier, the role of stage management is very strategic. It is the maintenance of self both in the present and the past. Cover (2013) discusses how profiles can be edited to manipulate perceptions. By no means am I suggesting you should alter your profiles to be someone who you are not. Rather you should strategically highlight who you are while cleaning out any irrelevant information. There may be things in the past that now no longer reflect who you truly are and you consider removing these from your public profile. For example you should consider deleting those posts from when your were 16 and updating that 5 year old bio. While this may not help you stand out as such it will prevent you from standing out for the wrong reasons.
With everything said, when I tell my students to be authentic and strategic what I really want them to take away is the following:
- Be yourself – don’t pretend to be something you are not
- Assess your stage management across all lines of your communications
- Looking at celebrities critical and how their performance of self
- Show who you are and what you are passionate about
- Think about what you want to achieve
- Who is your audience you are trying to reach
- Google yourself
Butler, J 1993 Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”, Routledge, New York.
Cover, R 2014, ‘Becoming and belonging: performativity, subjectivity, and the cultural purposes of social networking’, in Poletti, A and Rak, J (eds.), Identity Technologies: Constructing the Self Online, The University ofWisconsin Press, Madison, pp. 55-69
Kernis, M & Goldman, B 2006 ‘A Multicomponent Conceptualization of Authenticity: Theory and Research’, Advances in Experimental Social Psychology , 2006, Vol. 38 Issue 1, p6-6, 1p. Publisher: Elsevier Science., Database: Supplemental Index
Marshall,D (2010) ‘The promotion and presentation of the
self: celebrity as marker of presentational media’, Celebrity Studies, Vol 1, No. 1, pp35-48, Routledge
Salm, L 2017 70% of employers are snooping candidates’ social media profiles, Career Builder <http://www.careerbuilder.com/advice/social-media-survey-2017>
Smith, S and Watson, J 2014, ‘Virtually Me: A Toolbox about Online Self-Presentation’ in Poletti, A and Rak, J (eds.), Identity Technologies: Constructing the Self Online, The University ofWisconsin Press, Madison, pp. 70-95
Williams, H & Vess, M 2016 ‘Daydreams and the True Self: Daydreaming Styles Are Related to Authenticity’, Imagination, Cognition & Personality , Dec2016, Vol. 36 Issue 2, p128-149, 22p. Publisher: Sage