Sunday, January 08, 2017

Living Our Online Lives Authentically and Inauthentically

It's difficult for people who have grown up with the online medium to fully appreciate how truly powerful and revolutionary social media is and can be.  In the past, the way to get your voice out was through print publication or perhaps through radio or television.  Both required access to publishers and broadcasters that was quite difficult and limited.  Now, almost anyone can generate a podcast, publish a blog, tweet an opinion, or stream video.  This democratization of communication challenges authoritarian governments and institutions.  It provides access to specialized information to those around the globe who might not have access to university libraries or research journals.  Sadly, the democratization of communication has also provided a kind of shield for those who would engage in less constructive discourse, from hateful trolling to cynically fake news and breathtakingly insincere virtue signaling.  

In the interest of separating wheat and chaff, I would like to introduce the concept of "online personality".  This is the personality revealed by the online participation of an individual or group.  I would argue that it is precisely the relative anonymity of the online medium that makes social media an unusually clear window on the souls of participants.

A simple methodology for assessing online personality is to categorize posts by their emotional content and tone.  To accomplish this, consider four major positive factors of emotional experience and four negative ones:


1)  Happiness - Spreading joy, fun, and enjoyment
2)  Significance - Promoting valued causes and ideas that are deeply meaningful
3)  Stimulation - Offering new ideas, developments, and perspectives that widen our appreciation of the world
4)  Bonding - Promoting shared experience and appreciation of others


1)  Discouragement - Expressing pessimism, fatalism, and depressed sentiment
2)  Anger - Attacking others, venting frustration, and expressing hostile sentiment
3)  Fear - Expressing worry and anxiety and catastrophizing events
4)  Meaninglessness - Voicing boredom, alienation, and absence of purpose 

Any tweet, blog post, podcast, video, or photo posted online can be coded with at least one of these factors and often more than one.  Any particular post may fall into one category or another, but over time patterns emerge for most social media participants.  You'll see many posts devoted to happiness and bonding, as people share life experiences.  You'll also see many posts spewing anger and discouragement over the state of the world or the state of their lives.  Think of people who post on market-related topics.  We have those who promote fear ("Market is going to plunge") and discouragement about the state of the world and promote themselves as safe havens.  We also have those that seek to stimulate with fresh perspectives and education, offering ideas of significance.

To a surprising degree, our personalities are revealed by our online personalities:  by the emotional tone of our communications.  We can either serve as positive influences in people's lives or negative ones.  Our communications can either give energy or drain it.  Happy, productive people doing good things in their lives are not filled with discouragement, anger, fear, and meaninglessness.  They do not spew hate, discouragement, and fear to signal virtues, because they are too busy living authentic, virtuous lives.  The right people are living their values, enhancing the world around them.  The wrong people attack others, vainly hoping to elevate themselves.

There's a saying that we are a composite of those we spend the most time with.  We cannot help but absorb what is mirrored to us in our interactions with others.  Similarly, we are most influenced by the influences we access online.  Our personalities are shaped, in part, by the online personalities that we frequent.  Nothing is quite so nourishing as a healthy diet of social influences.  Nothing is quite so richly rewarding as an authentic life that creates positive influences for self and others.

Further Reading:  Going on a Healthy Psychological Diet