authenticity on social mediaSocial media sites like Facebook and Twitter offer a unique opportunity to get close to people who are hundreds of miles away. You can share anything with anyone at any time.

You can share.

Does this mean that you should share?

I’ve come up against this question many times, hovering over the Send button on a status update or considering what’s okay to share and what’s too private (or uninteresting). Where should the line be drawn? Should there even be a line?

I’m happy to offer some of my thoughts and ideas below, and I’d love to hear from you, too. How much of yourself do you share on social media? And do you feel it’s enough? Let’s discuss together.

Authenticity vs. Transparency vs. Vulnerability

When I try to wrap my head around the notion of how much of myself to share on social media, I often end up with a jumble of words and ideas. It helps to line them out and consider each carefully.

Let’s start with the two big ones: authenticity and transparency. These two often become interchangeable to me when they really shouldn’t. They’re two separate ideas.

Authenticity = Sharing genuinely = The way you share

Transparency = Sharing deeply = The things you share

One of my go-to explanations for the difference here is this simple explanation from Pam Moore:

Transparency is how much you share and authenticity is the truth of your words and actions.

Now we’re getting somewhere. With these definitions in tow, we can start to draw some conclusions.

  1. Authenticity stands apart, regardless of how much you share.
  2. You can be authentic without sharing everything.
  3. You can choose your level of transparency and remain authentic throughout.

authenticity-transparency

In this sense, one might conclude that you never need to be anything other than 100 percent authentic with the updates that you post to social media.

Always be authentic.

Be varying degrees of transparent.

At Buffer, we’ve taken transparency to heart—and to the extreme. We share our salaries with everyone. We blog about our specific strategies for growth. We publish our personal improvements live on the Internet for all to see every single week. Transparency holds a special place in our company culture, and it has been a hallmark of the way we’ve gone about our business.

Most other companies fall a little closer to the median on the spectrum of transparency, and this is fine—provided authenticity on social media remains a priority. You can share little bits and pieces, so long as they’re genuine bits.

Now that we’ve discussed authenticity and transparency, let’s throw one more factor into the mix: vulnerability. Research professor Brené Brown is one of the leading voices on the topic of vulnerability, having studied it in great detail and having written about it in her book Daring Greatly. Here’s her definition of vulnerability:

Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.

To carry this definition over to social media, you might say:

Vulnerability = Sharing courageously about good and bad

So let’s reexamine our three factors now.

  1. You should be authentic 100% of the time.
  2. You should be transparent with whatever you choose.
  3. Your comfort level with vulnerability will help determine your level of transparency.

How do those definitions feel to you?

I’ve grabbed a couple examples of how this plays out in the real world of social media so you can see what these factors look like in practice. The first story makes quite the case for authenticity.

4x more followers simply by being authentic

Brian Fanzo of Broadsuite delivered a really neat story and comment on our Buffer blog post about Twitter psychology. Fanzo has grown his Twitter account from 3,000 followers to over 14,000 followers in the past eight months, adhering to two simple rules: Share great content and be yourself.
comment

My social world changed when I stopped thinking about what others wanted to hear and focused on two things….

  1. Being myself as transparent and open as possible
  2. Sharing content from people who inspired me and content that provided me value but doing it in a unique way.

The reason Twitter is amazing is the same reason it’s overwhelming for so many…. the people and connections you can make are endless! Key is having a strategy for what you’re doing and sharing while at the same time being SOCIAL and HUMAN as the recipe for building strong relationships hasn’t changed just the tool we are using to do so!

Doing this drastically changed my engagement, shares, and overall social relationships. By sharing and helping and joining Twitter chats it opened up the communities that I was able to reach. I went from 3,000 followers at the start of 2014 to 14,000 today—Without ever focusing on gaining followers, rather sharing great content and being myself.

Much of the advice I’ve shared about follower growth in past posts on the Buffer blog relies on scientific research and best practices, advice like “use positivity in your updates” and “post more than you’re posting now.”

This advice is all well and good. Brian’s story shows there might be other, simpler alternatives, too.

Share what you’re comfortable with

Author, blogger, and web designer Paul Jarvis held a live Q&A session via Google Hangout this summer, letting fans and followers ask him any question they wanted (a great example of vulnerability in practice).

Here is one of the questions that came in. Sound familiar?

Are you naturally comfortable sharing your personality online? If not, how do you develop that ability? I feel that I have an awkwardness barrier even after working at this for years.

Paul’s answer:

The biggest thing is that I don’t really share all of myself or my personality online. I share what I’m comfortable with.

(The specific question comes at the 3:00 mark.)

We know many specific things about Paul from what he’s shared online—e.g., he is vegan, he owns pet rats. Yet these are only a few isolated parts of his day-to-day life that he’s offered to share.

What do you know about me from social media? I’ve taken the same approach as Paul, sharing what I’m comfortable with and doing so specifically. From following me online, you may know that I like football, I like cheesy jokes, and I take a lot of pictures of my keyboard.

There’s a lot more to me than these three parts, of course. For instance, I am super madly deeply in love with my wife and son, yet I’ve chosen to keep them off the grid. Maybe some day my transparency will change. For now, I’ve found a comfort zone with sharing just enough and sharing it with authenticity.

The takeaway: Choose what you’re comfortable with sharing. Share specifics. Share authentically.

How authenticity fits with voice and tone

We’ve talked before about the importance of voice and tone for your marketing and branding. Voice is like a mission statement for the way you post on social media, and tone is the application of that mission.

MailChimp has a great example of how this voice and tone plays out in a variety of ways.

mailchimp voice tone example

It’s best to have a consistent voice and tone. For example, if your voice is one of positivity, there’s no room for negativity.

So what if something negative happens?

  1. You could spin it to find the silver lining.
  2. You could stash it away and never post it.

To keep with voice and tone, you’re often presented with these two choices: shaping the experience to fit your style or avoiding the experience altogether. What you decide to do will largely depend on the level of transparency and vulnerability you’ve chosen.

In either case, you can always view the matter of voice and tone as an extension of authenticity. There’s an element of reliability with authenticity. Authentic people are dependable in the way they post. Voice and tone—even in tough situations—can help support this feeling of authenticity.

The 3 questions I ask myself when deciding what to share

One of the neatest stats that I’ve read lately about social media came from a post Courtney shared about psychological studies. Facebook tracked 3.9 million users over a 17-day period and found that 71 percent of users typed out at least one status or comment and then decided not to submit it. On average, these folks changed their mind on 4.52 statuses and 3.2 comments.
Facebook self censorship study

Would you fall into one of those categories?

Just the other day, I was tempted to post what I thought was a funny observation about my experience at a website. Thankfully, I let the update sit in my Buffer queue over night, and I thought better of it the next day.

How do we end up deciding what gets posted and what gets shelved? I’d expect you have a few questions you might ask yourself when determining if a piece of content is post-worthy or not. Here are the questions I’ve found most helpful.

  1. Would others find it interesting?
  2. Is it revealing a part of me that I’m comfortable with sharing?
  3. Does it fit with the message I want to express on social media?

Over time, I’ve found that the first two questions get easier to answer as I get better at recognizing what’s interesting and shareable. The third question—“is it on-message”—takes a bit more contemplation. I’ve left off plenty of updates that didn’t seem to be a perfect fit with the values I want to express in my social sharing (positivity, helpfulness, simplicity).

Is the extra time it takes to vet these updates worth it? I’ve found that it absolutely is.

Recap

Share with authenticity on social media, all the time.

Share transparently, as much as you’re comfortable.

Be vulnerable if you choose.

The first element is required for social media—most folks can sniff an inauthentic account from a mile away. The second, transparency, is required to varying degrees. You choose the level you want to expose. And if you’re comfortable with a degree of vulnerability on social media, all the better.

How do you decide how much of yourself to share on social media? What has the experience been like for you?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

 

Looking for a better way to share on social media?

Schedule, publish & analyze your posts across the top social networks, all in one place.

Start a 14-Day Free Trial
Written by Kevan Lee

Director of marketing at Buffer, the social media publishing tool for brands, agencies, and marketers. We’ve got a new podcast! ?

  • Good one, Kevan. The authenticity part is SO important. I never share anything online anywhere that I can’t be honest about. Even if it’s just a link to a blog post – I’ve read the post and I have a bonafide opinion about it in the event someone should want to discuss. And the point about vulnerability is important, too. Not everyone’s personality is suited to that. Mine is… and I’m really comfortable conveying it online. Some of my best connections and friendships have stemmed from that. But it comes back to authenticity… Stay in your comfort zone because you risk your credibility if you’re not being yourself.

    • Great comment, Christin! Thanks for sharing your experience. Sounds like authenticity has been a great asset for you!

  • Lyndal Cairns

    I share quite a bit because consultants are hired on who they are, not just what they can do. As for where to draw the line, I think you have to ask yourself: Would I be happy if my colleague/customer/mom read this?

    • Hi Lyndal! Yes! Great point! I’ve tried the “would I be happy if my family read this” test before, and it does indeed work!

  • Nicole Graves

    Love that article! Something I am struggling with myself, too, as I try to learn more about the Dos and Donts.
    Thanks!

  • Robin Rice

    This is brilliant, sharing with my online students!

    • Hi, Robin! So glad you found this one helpful! Hopefully it resonates with your students, too. 🙂

  • Really great post, Kevan. This is something we’re always playing with at Mention, but it’s also something I am constantly thinking about for my personal “brand,” as a representative of a few different brands.

    I’ve always been an over-sharer, especially on Facebook. Not in terms of frequency, really, but the type of info I share. I used to go to Facebook to share funny and embarrassing stories about myself, talk about Tinder dates, share that I miss my mom who I lost 5 years ago, etc. I also used to be known for cursing and sometimes bordering the line of appropriateness, because that’s my personality. But as my network has grown, I’ve had to filter myself significantly. I’m still myself, but def generate less laughs than I once did. Authenticity is there, transparency decreased.

    For Twitter, I don’t share nearly as much personal info, but I do try to let my personality shine through (thus my twitter bio being what it is).

    Really overly long story short, you’re absolutely right, it’s all about finding what you’re comfortable with.

    • Hi Shannon! Thanks for the comment! It’s really amazing to hear how your transparency has evolved over time. Sounds like there might be a certain level of responsibility one has as a network grows; same probably goes for job seekers (I know Buffer factors in a person’s social updates in the hiring equation). Have you found another outlet for the oversharing/laugh-generating stuff? Just curious. 🙂

      • Well, I created a closed Facebook group of a bunch of my closest friends back home, but I never post in it unless I’m announcing a trip back. Already have too many groups.

        Instead, I’ve reverted to just sharing my personal/funny stories with a handful of friends and family members the “old fashion way” via text and phone calls (and gchat of course). Probably better that way. 🙂

        I’ll eventually get my personal blog going again where I share filtered anecdotes similar to what I used to post.

        • Sounds great, Shannon! I like the old school ways of interacting, too. 🙂 We’ve got a few on the team here who even do handwritten letters!

    • Adapting the sharing strategy based on our own development and the increase in number of followers is fantastic. The world changes and so should our social media strategy.
      How you differentiate the use of the diverse channels is also worth learning.

  • MalikaBourne

    Your timing to present this exact information in front of my face is perfect. It is time for me to review this.
    For me, I had the information in my head to be myself. this included find the right user name could be used to be authentic and vulnerable enough for potential viewers to trust me as a real live persons who not only has struggles but has a plan of action to over come barriers in family situations.
    I don’t suggest everyone take on the personality I promote on line as the “take no crap No Non-cents Nanna.” in fact I think most should avoid this kind of vulnerability as that could but your or your family in danger and legal problems…I chose to write about my own battle with depression, mood issues and more. I am bluntly honest with solutions in hopes that some one searching will know that I can relate to them and I am certainly not holier than thu’ and yet have a solution.
    Sorry about the blog post her. You stirred up my passion for what I do.

    • Hi Malika! Thanks so much for sharing! Sounds like you’ve found a great spot with vulnerability/authenticity. 🙂

  • I like your insight as it brings things to the point I always did unconsciously – even I did actually “withdraw” from the public more using less private information but using my private style to share business related or generic things that are helpful for customers and my specific audiences across different platforms, sites and social media networks. Thanks for sharing!

  • Great post here Kevan! Added some thoughts to consider for a TED talk I’m giving next month on the idea of How to be a Human Being Online!

    • Thanks, Josh! Congrats on the TED talk next month! Can’t wait to hear what you present! 🙂

  • Lucy Ward

    Thank you for this – a very thoughtful contribution to a discussion everyone who uses social media should be having – individually and collectively. As a journalist, trained (in the print era!) to beware of the influence of one’s own voice and personality in news stories, I’ve found it very tricky to “allow” my voice out into the open, and not to try too hard to construct it. This was partly a matter of wanting to craft too much (influence of my job), plus a real fear of losing what I still believe is a very precious sense of the private self. I’m still often baffled by how much people share online, though this may well be down to some slightly bruising experiences in response to my own articles, which is common to all journalists. The only way round this awkwardness, I suspect, is to experiment and, as you suggest, see what feels comfortable – different for everyone. But the issue of our public and private selves is an enormous one and deserves more debate – not least as (speaking as a mother of three) it’s something our teenage kids are daily trying to work out too, with all the vulnerability and occasionally flawed judgement that their age naturally brings.

    • Hi Lucy! Thanks so much for this comment! I’ve got a journalism background as well, and I had not yet considered that some of my trepidation with authenticity could have been due to my background! What an illuminating idea!

      And I love the note about being an example to our kids and those we influence! Thanks for sharing!

  • Krista Hinz

    Great concept for personal and company brands. Will keep it in mind when crafting content for my organization, Valley of the Sun United Way and on my personal time too. Speaking of what “should” you share, if I see another ultrasound photo in my feed, I’m getting off Facebook! Well…maybe not. But that’s certainly not a part of my life where I’ll ever be transparent on social. Major pet peeve!

    • Hi Krista! Thanks for the comment! Wow, ultrasound pics are quite a deep level of transparency/vulnerability!

      • Krista Hinz

        Hi Kevan, right! Not a fan of that much transparency.

  • Great article Kevan, and as someone who has built their brand around being a ‘chronic oversharer’ it certainly provides food for thought. As I’ve been building my profile I have been worrying whether I am sharing too much – not because i’m uncomfortable with who I am or people knowing about it but because it’s ‘not done’ or might appear OTT. You’ve reminded me vulnerability is the intersection of truth and courage and cos it works for me and my brand I’m going to keep on authentically (over) sharing.

    Thank you!

    • Hi Lotte! Amazing stuff! Thanks so much for sharing. Glad the part about vulnerability resonated with you. All credit to Dr. Brown for that insight!

  • Tracy Louisa Steel

    I have often shared something that has upset or bothered me via social media and find these kind of posts get the most engagement. People often have felt the same and empathise, they share their own common experience around it, or disagree and debate, or share advice. It’s almost like an opening to a mini therapy room and everyone feels better for sharing. I don’t think I’ve seen any unauthentic posts, the only posts that I really take a disliking to are the passive aggressive ones (even the nicest of people are prone to this now and then). I’m totally me on SM but I have connected with people who I’m not afraid to be me with. If you have built a trusted and supportive, intelligent friends list, there is no need to worry about how much you share.

    • Hi Tracy! Sounds like you’ve built a really awesome community on social media! So glad you feel comfortable and encouraged to share. 🙂

  • Steve Hedstrom

    Thanks for the great blog today Kevan. I find this post interesting, something I am comfortable sharing, and on-topic with the message I want to portray online. Time to share! Happy I subscribed! Keep up the good work!

    • Awesome stuff, Steve! Thanks for the comment, and really glad this one struck the right tone!

  • Inspiring post Kevan. If everyone on the Internet shared authentically, we would have a much more exciting and engaging conversation. It is the mask of the Internet that still separates us from one another. As opposed to real life, it seems that we can “hide”. If we were all authentic online, we would definitely take the conversation 2.0 to the next level. I am part of the movement!

  • Steve Phillip

    Forgive me Kevan but this is not meant to be a pun but this is probably the most authentic post I’ve read on social media in a while, really enjoyed it. Increasingly, my blog content has become more authentic and to the point, which has created more engagement. I think I need to apply more of the same to Twitter.

  • mayhemstidios

    I think most people talk too much, says whatever comes out their mouths. Stop, think before speaking, then think again. Also stop and listen to what others are saying. It’s not about you. 🙂

  • Eric D Townsend

    Thanks for the post Kevan! I recently read a book called, “Trust Agents” which discussed how to properly use your transparency to come across as authentic. Humanizing the brand, whether it be a personal brand or not, creates trust online. Your article was very well written in supporting some of those ideas that I firmly believe in.

  • tlmaurer

    Great article, Kevan! I’ve found the process of finding the best fit between being professional and sharing my lighter side a bit challenging. After several years in the social world, I’m finding my own reality of ‘using your voice’ and ‘being myself’. Thanks for your own perspective on this ‘sticky wicket.’

  • Thanks for this great post Kevan. Love your “rules” about authenticity, transparency and vulnerability. You inspired me to think about what I share online and to write about it: http://www.afrit22.nl/bloggen/hoeveel-delen-onszelf-online/ (in Dutch ;-))

  • briancauley

    My partner Andrea Wrobel and I have been sharing every detail of our relationship (well…almost every detail 😉 on http://onethousanddates.com. Our biggest question was “why?”.

    We don’t think sharing for the sake of sharing is enough. There has to be more. We hope readers can learn something from our mistakes, vulnerable moments, and personal discoveries.

    We want more real content online and in media and we figured we should start with ourselves.

  • Thanks for posting Kevan. I haven’t been that good at sharing on social media, but now I have some anchors to get started. Much appreciated. In fact, this is my first comment ever, so I guess the credit goes to you, and I guess it’s my way to expand my comfort zone. However, I’ve been following a lot of people in various ways, and, in the spirit of sharing, I would like to share what I’ve found, although it’s not directly related to your question.

    Whenever we share something, we believe that what we share is worthy of notice and attention. But what makes the share noteworthy is not so much the content as the way it’s communicated. If what you share isn’t communicated in an interesting or relevant perspective, or if it doesn’t reveal something authentic about yourself, it won’t have a distinctive mark–something that calls for attention.