I’ve read a few articles in various sources about the distortion and perversion of social media and the way in which people use social media as a means of creating a false impression of themselves. It’s an interesting behavior, both psychologically and sociologically, but it also has significant implications for online marketing, particularly to the validity of information harvested from social media and its reliability as a basis for strategic decisions.
The core theses of these articles is that social media encourages antisocial behavior, which seems a bit melodramatic and alarmist, but is to some degree true: people choose what they share about themselves of social media, and attempt to portray themselves in the best possible way. I don’t see this as being any different than what is done in everyday life. On a first date or a job interview, we present our best selves, and this has been done long before social media.
However, the practice becomes questionable when people feel that their “best selves” are not good enough, and they begin to embellish their personalities with false information – they lie to make a positive impression. I would say that this, too, is normal – consider the way in which children show up on “picture day” at school dressed and groomed much better than they are on any other day of the year.
But normal people are also more conservative about the falsehoods they present in real life: they may reinterpret the facts to conceal the negative and accentuate the positive, but they remain largely genuine in what they present. The difference is similar to that between using make-up and garments to conceal blemishes and accentuate attractive features as opposed to wearing a disguise that completely alters and conceals one’s real self. The latter is clearly crossing the line, and it’s much easier to do in social media, where the “friends” one has are people that will likely never be met in real life and the disguise is much easier to maintain.
So while primping up and presenting one’s best side is perfectly normal, it crosses the line into dysfunction when it becomes an act of falsification. While it seems like conceitedness, it is really an expression of self-loathing: a person presents a fake self because they feel their genuine self is not “good enough” to be liked by other people. And the result is that they become more detached and withdrawn from others because they are in constant fear that their trickery will be discovered, called out, and they will be shamed for it.
For that reason, such people have thousands of online “friends” but fewer social acquaintances in real life than an average person who presents an accurate (albeit groomed) version of themselves. It’s been suggested that the average person has less than a dozen close friends, fifty or so casual friends, and up to 200 people with whom they have compartmentalized friendships (such as co-workers who are congenial at the office but do not associate after hours). If these estimates are accurate, then the average person would have less than 300 “friends” in real life. So the person with thousands is faking it, or enabling others to fake it.
Ultiamtely, the person who fakes themselves in order to gain popularity becomes more withdrawn and less likely to form actual social relationships. In that sense, it’s a vicious cycle of anti-social behavior. People fake their personality because they feel their real selves are inferior, but they do not associate with the “friends” they make online because they fear being discovered, and as a consequence they are just as isolated and detached as they originally were, perhaps more so, but they feel it more poignantly and maintaining the deception means avoiding meaningful contact in real life – because anyone who gets close to the real person is going to discover they are quite different than they claim to be.
Falsified Attitudes and Behaviors
The method by which a person fakes their personality is in the expression of attitudes and the allegation of behaviors that are not merely embellishments of the truth, but complete falsehoods.
People claim to believe things they do not believe, but are merely expressing opinions that they believe others will admire (as evidenced by the number of people who claim to support social causes and “like” them online, but do not give a minute of their time or a cent of their income to actually support) and claim to behave in ways that they actually do not (they have cool hobbies and interests in which they have no involvement and very little knowledge).
This crosses into the commercial realm when they falsify attitudes and behaviors about brands – they “like” and claim to use brands that they do not purchase or use, because associating with these brands creates an impression on other people. It is most obvious when young people who do not have sufficient income to consume luxury brands wish to associate with them online by “liking” them – and in the offline world, it often happens when a person purchases brand merchandise for brands they do not own (a keychain, t-shirt, or other cheap item bearing the marque of a luxury brand).
In essence, this is conspicuous consumption, but without any genuine consumption.
Issues for Marketers
The issue for marketers is in the reliability of social media research, which again is not a new phenomenon. It’s generally accepted that when surveys or laboratory experiments are conducted, that people engage in some degree of posturing, responding in a manner that presents their best selves rather than their real selves, and that this causes the findings to be biased and dilutes the effectiveness of any decisions made based on those findings. If social media behavior is further removed from real-world behavior, the dilution is more severe.
If a brand assumes that everyone who “likes” the brand is a customer or strong prospect, then it may be mislead. Particularly for products that are conspicuously consumed, there will be many online fans who do not, and never will, actually purchase and use the brand. Arguably, the distortion will be less severe for brands that are not conspicuously consumed, but even these will have fewer fans to draw from – fakers are less prone to “like” a brand of detergent than a designer fashion label, but then so are real people.
The problem is further compounded because those who falsify their association to a brand are also likely to falsify their attitudes and behaviors, so research of that nature is also highly corrupted. And further, since fakers tend to have the most “friends” online, they are often mistaken for being influential people (which may be their aim), such that the brand’s association is drawn away from the individuals who are genuine customers and are genuinely influential with other customers.
Ultimately, real behavior is driven by real causes and is associated to real attitudes and behaviors. Any strategy that is based on falsified information is likely to have little genuine effect.
In the end, what’s suggested here is not the complete abandonment of social media research, but a careful consideration of the degree to which it will be corrupted by false claims on the part of those who wish to associate with the brand for narcissistic reasons. I expect this will pose a serious problem to luxury brands that have high esteem and are conspicuously consumed, and a less serious one to humdrum brands that are consumed in private, and for which little esteem is afforded to the consumer.