Online authenticity: Debated definitions

Photo used with permission from Mary Henderson

Image created by Mary Henderson

Our culture is a bit obsessed with “authenticity.”

A great piece at The New York Times says this:

Legions of marketers and social networking coaches are preaching that to succeed online — on Twitter, Facebook, — we must all “be authentic!” A proposed panel at next year’s South by Southwest interactive conference promises to teach attendees “how to be authentic and human without embarrassing yourself.”

This is especially true when talking about one’s online persona. So many people—myself included—are skeptical of others online. Does that girl always look like her Facebook selfies? Does that guy really talk like his statuses?

Part of this skepticism is a response to the much talked about cases where an online persona does not match the person behind it. Remember football star Manti Te’o’s dead girlfriend who turned out to be very much alive and also a man? Catfishing stories like this have made us paranoid.

But I think in responding to these false identities we’ve sometimes gone too far in the opposite direction, now lauding a form of “authenticity” that can be harmful and unrealistic.

Instead of merely taking “authenticity” to mean telling the truth, many use the word to mean that you should parade your entire personality—secrets, warts and all—online without self-censorship.

One of the definitions of “authentic” that Merriam-Webster offers is “real or genuine.” In other words, if you’re a man named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, don’t portray yourself as a woman named Lennay Kekua (yes, that’s an extreme example), and do try to generally sound and behave like you do in the world off the internet. This, I think, is a definition of authenticity we can all support.

But we shouldn’t have to put everything online in order to be authentic, nor can we realistically portray every aspect of ourselves on a virtual platform.

In the non-online world we portray ourselves differently in different circumstances. Most people act differently with friends than with parents. Both of those situation-specific behaviors alter when the person is with his grandparents. And most people don’t act the same in their workplace as they do with friends or family.

People dress differently, use different words and focus on different subjects when in different situations.

This doesn’t make these people inauthentic. It makes them professional when they need to be professional and casual when they need to be casual. It makes their behavior appropriate for the circumstance.

In much the same way, the internet is a circumstance for which people must pick a method of behavior with the awareness that anyone could potentially see online postings. If you don’t want your boss to see it, don’t post it.

Is this calculated? Yes, but “calculated” is not synonymous with “inauthentic.”

Twisting the definition of “authenticity” to mean behaving with utter abandon is what gets people fired for inappropriate tweets. It’s what makes people appear unprofessional in settings where they should act like professionals.

And so authenticity should not mean acting the way you might act in any and every circumstance. Choosing which “self” to share with the world is not inauthentic, but practical.




  1. Really enjoyed reading this. I definitely understand your definition of authenticity in your blog post. People think they have to post all their secrets and their entire life on social media to come across as real and that is not the case. You can still be you but be careful what you show to the world.

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