What do others see, when they look at what you share online?

Our online activities leave traces, just like our physical activities leave footprints. These traces – or digital footprints – together create a digital representation of ourselves, which others can see. For instance, our work colleagues can check our various social media profiles; future employers or business partners can type our names in a search engine; and businesses can aggregate offline and online data to build our consumer profile.


So, it is important to ask ourselves: What do others see, when they look at what we share online?


Dr. Finola Kerrigan and Andrew Hart explore what our digital representations look like in the paper ‘Theorising digital personhood: a dramaturgical approach’, available here. Here are some ideas from their paper that I found very interesting.


  1. As content leaks from one social media platform to the other, our representations become mixed

We share different facets of our self on different social media platforms. For instance, we praise brands in private and criticise them in public. Or we share our personal updates on Facebook, our creative attempts on YouTube, and our professional achievements on LinkedIn. Much like we tend to do different things when we are at home, out with our friends, or at work. Yet, while our offline home / friends / work representations can remain more or less separate, that is not the case with our online ones. Content that we shared with one audience finds its way to other ones, through a process that Finola and Andrew called social media leakage.


Social media leakage occurs because of the social media platforms’ ever changing rules and security settings. For instance, Facebook shares more and more of our personal information, publicly:

Image source: http://www.pcworld.com/article/196023/facebook_privacy.html

Social media leakage can also occur because people that we are connected with online share our content (e.g., repost, retweet or quote) with others on their social network and/or on other social media platforms.


In other words: the boundaries of each social media platform are porous; so, content leaks from one platform to the other resulting in a digital representation of ourselves that is very different from the one(s) that we expressed in the first place.


This leakage can result in undesired representations of ourselves. For instance, when our professional contacts learn about a chronic illness that we wanted to keep private. It can also result in misrepresentations; for instance, when pictures, actions or words that we posted ironically for one audience, are taken out of context and interpreted literally by another audience.


2. Our past and present selves coexist online

Our tastes, opinions and even identities (e.g., relationship status, or sexual orientation) change over time – leg warmers and padded shoulders come to mind 😉 Yet, the digital traces of those tastes, opinions and identities remain online, and searchable.


This means that, online, our past and present selves coexist. And, again, the representations that we intended for one audience in the past, may come into conflict with our present self and audience(s). For instance, it may make it difficult for us to distance ourselves from a previous addiction.


That is, we have multiple (and leaking) contemporaneous selves, and we have multiple temporal selves, all coexisting online. A bit like this:


I loved this paper. It really got me thinking about what this leakage and the temporal coexistence mean for us, as individuals who express themselves online. And about what it means for marketers who analyse online information to learn about the identities, behaviours and motivations of consumers.


For individuals – It is impossible to have compartmentalised digital representations of our selves. So:

  • People may become more wary of, and less open in, what they share online;
  • It may be difficult to move on from the past, with consequences in terms of personal well being, as well as opportunities as consumers (e.g., credit rating).


For marketers – Data only makes sense in context. So:

  • If we do not know who the audience was, it may be unclear what was meant by a certain statement. Irony, humour, abbreviations, and slang are all very difficult to interpret out of context;
  • It may be unclear whether what we are observing reflects past intentions and behaviours, current ones, or even aspirations.


There are also implications in terms of education and business opportunities, regarding the management of dynamic digital representations.


What do you think about all of these?


4 thoughts on “What do others see, when they look at what you share online?

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