Differently authentic? Self-presentation and audience on social media

Marwick and Boyd argue that, as self-presentation varies depending on audience, it follows that authenticity (in the sense that social media users would recognise) is a construct (2010, p11). It is certainly true that we all constantly construct images of ourselves for others, trying to strike a balance between the ideal and the authentic (Davis, 2014), both on and offline – it is an essential aspect of managing social expectations – but this does not make those constructions automatically inauthentic. However, on social media, due to the collapse of different contexts (individuals and groups) into a single audience, true authenticity, which still ‘fits’ each individual within the audience, is more difficult to achieve (Marwick and Boyd, 2010).

There are a number of mechanisms through which this difficulty may be overcome, including targeting different sub groups of a social media audience with different communications, ‘coding’ messages to specific groups, and ‘flattening’ communications with the audience to remove any contentious material (Marwick and Boyd, 2010). It is interesting to note that some of the subjects of Marwick and Boyd’s study found the idea of writing to an overt audience uncomfortable and inauthentic (Marwick and Boyd, 2010, p6), and that they believed they were writing purely for themselves. It is arguable that this is unlikely, given that, particularly in social media, presentation is co-presentation – we are constantly altered by what others are doing. By these subject’s argument, it would follow that we are then inevitably inauthentic.

One way to overcome this perceived inauthenticity is through the ‘authenticity contract’ (Enli, 2016). This theory argues that the degree of authenticity perceived between sender and receiver is symbolically negotiated, thus filling in the ‘missing link’ in the transaction. This may go some way to explain the depth of feeling when this ‘contract’ is broken, through strategic self promotion or lying (Marwick and Boyd, 2010, p15). In order to avoid this contract break, Enli identifies using ‘confession’ and ‘ordinariness’. These mirror Marwick and Boyd’s subjects identification of the ‘personal’ and ‘human’ elements, which are seen as being essential for achieving authenticity.

However, and notwithstanding all of the above, what happens when context collapse creates conflict? Take the oft-used example of an individual being friended or followed by a work colleague who subsequently sees personal posts which present the author in a way which is contrary to their work presentation. This clash suddenly forces separate aspects of presentation, and the ‘frontstage’ and ‘backstage’ areas outlined by Goffman (1959) together, potentially revealing the individuals previous ‘impression management’ to be false. This failure to employ successful ‘boundary management’ (Ollier-Malaterre and Rothbard, 2013) can create significant tensions, revealing the existence of multiple constructions of identify and throwing authenticity into doubt.

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2 thoughts on “Differently authentic? Self-presentation and audience on social media

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  1. I think your points on authenticity are spot on. I’ve always been taught to keep work life and my personal life separate. But it can be difficult with social media. I think we can have our ‘work self’ and our ‘social self’ while still being authentic 😊

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  2. Interesting. I haven’t read anything scholarly in quite a while, so this was a nice change. On a separate note, I have a friend who constantly called me “fake” because my social media persona was different than my in-person/texting persona. I try not to curse and I won’t approach certain topics via social media. This kind of explains exactly what was going on there.

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