Do I know you?

by Kristin on September 22, 2010

in Culture, ideas & paradigms

Twitter screen shot (9.22.10)

I have a brand-new friend named Vanessa. Well, she’s sort of a new friend—I’ve known her for about three weeks or six months, depending on how you look at it.

Six months ago Vanessa (@vrhinesmith) and I “met” via Twitter, when she was still living in the Boston area; three weeks ago we met in real life, after she moved to town. So…how long would you say I’ve known her?

So many factors go into “knowing” someone

Obviously different people have very different ideas about how long Vanessa and I have been friends. Even the same person can have different ideas about it, because each situation is a bit different! For instance, there are some people I’ve followed on Twitter for more than a year, but I still wouldn’t say I know them, or that we’re friends. Maybe a person’s Twitter persona is very guarded and/or professional, or maybe our personalities and interests just haven’t “clicked.” (As we know, this can be the case with so-called “real-life friends,” too.)

In other cases, I am ready to invite a Twitter friend to my house for an extended visit after just a few weeks of knowing them via tweets. Maybe they’re extra transparent and warm, or they just have the personality and qualities of an old friend. Vanessa definitely fell into this category, even before I met her in person.

Sometimes the persona and the person actually match up!

When we finally did meet (you know—at a restaurant, sitting down at the same table), Vanessa was exactly like I expected. In other words, her online persona was completely in line with her real-life person. That alignment made it feel like we were picking up an older friendship, not starting a new one. (So the answer to my question “how long have I known Vanessa,” is six months—at least in this case, but not every case.)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how people package and present themselves on sites like Facebook and Twitter. As someone who helps clients with marketing and branding, I know quite a bit about the problems that arise when there’s a discrepancy between the image you present and the actuality of what’s there. It’s a “Where’s the beef?” moment—a matter of walking the talk. When I’m helping a client develop their brand, I always talk about “uncovering” their brand, not “creating” it. The goal isn’t figuring out and portraying who you wish you were, it’s discovering and then presenting who you really are.

Maybe that’s why I trust people more (and tend to be more drawn to them) when the person they present on Twitter balances the good and bad, the frustrations and complaints along with the sunny, picture-perfect moments (which brings to mind my closely related “Picture perfect?” post). Sure, we can craft our Twitter and Facebook “brands” any way we want, but at the end of the day, we all know this about life: It’s not perfect. So when someone presents their life as perfect, it’s highly suspicious, right?

Are online teens keeping it real?

All of these thoughts lead me to a bigger—and frankly scarier—thought: How are today’s teens, who are growing up with Facebook, packaging and branding themselves on line? How close is their online persona to the person they really are, rather than the person they wish they were? And what are the ramifications of these misrepresentations? I have a few (hundred) thoughts about this. Definitely another post for another day.

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  • Alise

    My best friend and I call it our “virtual village.” And it can definitely be a tricksey place. In general though, I have found that people are learning to navigate it pretty honestly, which makes me happy. There are definitely a bunch of people that I’ve met exclusively online that I would gladly spend an afternoon with. I’ve had online friendships where I’ve had the opportunity to “cross over” into real life friendships and it’s always been a blessing to me. And there are a ton of others that I think would be the same.

    As for kids/teens, this is why I think it’s really imperative for parents to understand social media. Not just have a facebook account that you use to spy on your kid, but actually USE it some. I want to be able to help my kids navigate these waters and relationships (and they ARE relationships) in a healthy way and I can’t do that if I don’t understand how they are different from and the same as flesh and blood friendships.

  • Lorna

    You know, people who use online dating sites could learn a thing or two here. “The goal isn’t figuring out and portraying who you wish you were, it’s discovering and then presenting who you really are.” Kind of removes the “smarmy” factor for me.

    It has taken me a longer time to develop friendships via twitter (which is my nature IRL as well), but I totally love that it is happening. I also agree that “when the person they present on Twitter balances the good and bad, the frustrations and complaints along with the sunny, picture-perfect moments” they become all the more real, and more someone I would want a friendship with.

  • Kristen Sloan

    I try to be authentic in my online presence whether that’s twitter, facebook or blogging while protecting myself. Often things can be taken out of context and since I work in a church, this can be a problem. So it’s an interesting balance. The teen question is scary. As a youth ministry worker, I constantly am telling teenagers to be aware of what they put up on facebook and worry about the image they are projecting. Hopefully they listen and I remind the parents to keep on top of it.

  • Meredith

    Food for thought, indeed! One of the things I find in developing online friendships is that it often moves at a different pace than real life friendships because of two reasons: we’re already seeking each other out and we’re already finding something to connect over (whether it’s a lifestyle, POV or interest/hobby). I find that I consider a lot of online friends “true” friends because we’ve connected over interests and ideas that maybe I don’t share with people in my real life. The online person becomes my book friend or my religion friend or my running friend. They’re a filling a hole that exists in my “real life.”

    As crazy and suspect as it sounds, it’s never occurred to me to be someone other than who I am, online or off. In my mind, it just takes too much energy to pretend to be different than you really are. Being honest and authentic is better, but I find it’s also just easier.

  • Becky Ramsey

    I sometimes wonder if I go a little too far in being authentic / vulnerable. I like to laugh at my own foibles, but every now and then somebody will miss the humor in what I say and talk to me as if I’m an imbecile or three years old! :) I used to feel the need to explain, but now I just laugh and move on.

    With two teens of my own, the online branding topic interests me. I remember starting high school and thinking that this was my chance to present the new me–to start with a clean slate. I think that’s getting harder to do!

  • bookhouseboy

    Wow, I was thinking about this very issue earlier today. I have a friend on twitter who I’ve known about as long as I’ve known you, I suppose — more than a year, less than two? We’re both school librarians, and while that probably was how we first found each other on twitter, we soon discovered all sorts of other commonalities: favorite tv shows, shared experiences, even weird coincidences where we’d both be doing the same thing or craving the same food.

    This week we’re both sick. We discovered yesterday we both have songs by Pomplamoose on our iPods. And this morning it suddenly occurred to me that some day we’re likely to meet at some professional conference, and what if we don’t get along, unlikely as that seems based on our twitter relationship?

    So then I was questioning if I know her at all. We live 3,000 miles apart, have never met face-to-face, and communicate only sporadically in 140-character bursts. And yet, I do consider her a friend.

  • Laura

    The vast majority of friends I have made in the past 7 years have come from two places: online (my prior blog, my current website, and twitter) or my place of worship. I think there are a lot of people who are very judgmental about meeting friends online even while concurrently enough time has passed that it seems normal to meet a partner or spouse online. I often wonder why there is a stigma there …

  • Jen

    Wow… I’ve been thinking a lot about this stuff too. Transparency, the “branding” nonsense, and the mystery of online friendships. Story time!

    Just this past Friday, I had a similar experience… I had the opportunity to have coffee with a couple of people I mostly knew online. One’s a musician I interviewed (via there’s a fun concept) about a year ago, and the other was a friend of his who made the 2 hour drive just to come to his show. Even though I’d only met Jason in person a brief couple times and only talked to Kaitlyn on Twitter, the time we spent navigating the confusing maze of downtown Orlando and talking in Starbucks about our faith, music, and lives was some of the most honest, meaningful conversation I’d had in a long time. It was like we’d been friends for years! And I came away from it realizing that we were probably friends all along.

    Later, one of my co-workers stopped Kaitlyn in the middle of a sentence, looked at us, and said, “You two are SO alike! You should get a house together.” It made us laugh, because it’s true and we had no idea! Funny how that works. :)

    I think it’s absolutely possible to build relationships — meaningful ones — online, especially for us introverted types. I struggle to get to know people, simultaneously wanting to both be known and keep to myself, but somehow, it’s a lot easier to be myself in the world of the Internet. And when those relationships crossover into “real life” it can be a beautiful thing. But there is that danger of “packaging” ourselves. I strive to be authentic… it’s not so hard on Twitter, but I think I could do a better job of it on my blog.

    Yeah. Oh, quiet introverts and our long rambly comments! ;)

    By the way, my aforementioned friend Jason wrote a really profound blog post on a similar topic just a few days before our coffee adventure. As both friend and fan, I believe I should share. :) It’s rather long, but I love the way he honestly wrestles with the tension of online transparency. (and it made me cry. at work.)

  • Jen

    PS: I just realized how long my comment was. Eek! Sorry for the long-winded reply. :P

  • Kristin T.

    Alise, I pretty much agree with your assessment of social media: “In general though, I have found that people are learning to navigate it pretty honestly….” Sometimes I wonder, however, if this is just true of a certain segment of the social media population—the people I’m drawn to and willing to build some community with. In other words, I make assumptions based on how my friends and I approach social media. Every so often when I get a glimpse of some “other” FB or Twitter world, it can be sort of shocking. (Oh, btw, you’re RIGHT ON regarding how important it is for parents to understand social media.)

    Lorna, the “smarmy factor” of online dating sites must get really old really fast! Online dating definitely adds a whole new layer to this topic. It makes me think that we need to somehow raise awareness of what can go wrong when you misrepresent yourself online (not just the dangers of trusting that someone is the same person they’re portraying).

    Kristen, I’m so glad there are youth ministry workers out there, like you, who truly *get* what social media is about. As my kids get older, I realize that protecting them has less to do with super strict rules and more to do with open conversation and instilling awareness. I’m glad parents aren’t the only ones having those conversations with teens.

    Meredith, that’s a really interesting observation about the pace of online friendships. In addition to the two reasons you suggest, I also think just having multiple interactions with someone throughout the day can speed up aspects of these friendships. I often go 2-3 weeks without seeing or interacting with some of my close IRL friends. Also, amen to this: “…it just takes too much energy to pretend to be different than you really are.” Teens might have the energy to devote to such causes, but the older I get, the more ridiculous the idea seems.

    Becky, I certainly don’t think you go too far in your vulnerability and sharing of foibles. Maybe if you do go “too far” you just drive away the people you don’t click with very well in the first place, so it doesn’t matter (at least in my mind). Regarding teens, I see what you mean about how hard it is to present a “clean slate,” but I think it’s easier than ever for them to present a carefully crafted persona. As a parent whose kids are getting closer to the Facebook age, I’m really hoping to find some good things to balance what feels like a lot of negatives. (Do I sound like a really old lady right now?!?)

  • Jennifer

    I’ve discovered a joy in connecting with others online. I refer to many in my twitter feed as friends. I talk about them and think about them as if we just had coffee together. In fact, during a recent rough patch in my life, two virtual friends have been my staunchest supporters are truest hearts. One of them I’ve never met, but we have mutual friends. And one I knew in college but we weren’t close at all. Now, she texts me every day. I needed some faithful attendance and accountability and I found it in the most unlikely place.

    As for the teens, well, yeah, let’s tackle that tomorrow. Or the day after that.

  • Kristin T.

    bookhouseboy, that sounds like such a fun Twitter friendship! I suspect you do know one another accurately and well, but that doesn’t mean it might not be a bit strange when you do finally meet IRL. There’s been so much build up, it puts a lot of pressure on the IRL aspect of your friendship to catch up. I hope you keep us posted (and get well soon)!

    Laura, that’s an interesting observation, about the discrepancy between online friendships vs romantic relationships. I’m not sure why that would be the case. Maybe people get how hard it can be to find a spouse/partner, so they’re more open to people doing whatever they need to? But I think finding really good friends can be hard, too! I’m glad you’ve shrugged off the stigma and made friends on line (myself included!).

    Jen, I love stories like that—never apologize for the length of a comment here! I can relate to your experience of having “some of the most honest, meaningful conversation I’d had in a long time” with online friends (or people you’ve known on line and just met IRL). It really highlights how important it is for us to broaden—or perhaps shift—our understanding/definition of “knowing” and “friendship.” And it works both ways: Some of the people I “know” here in town, I really don’t know at all.

  • erin

    You just thought I was a quirky, quilt-loving little gal. Actually, I’m a somber 400-pound man.

    When can I come visit?


    You’re asking good questions here, Kristin! How do we portray ourselves online?–As we are? As better or smarter? For some, being “yourself” is easy, for some it may be difficult (whether online or in person)–if you’re not comfortable in your own skin. Social media can be an easy place to “try on” new skin if you wish you were different.

    My best friend Ashley always strives to be herself, whether in person or online. However, she’s on and goes on dates with men who are, in fact, NOT the age/height/socialite they claim to be. Interesting profiles turn out to be awkward, mentally-unstable men. I’m trying to convince her to write a book.

    As for ourselves, it’s always good to ask every now and then, “Self, am I being myself in all aspects of my life?”

  • Genevieve

    Ooh, good topic! Thanks, Kristin!

    This is really interesting, because I briefly had that debate with myself when I was setting up Twitter/Facebook profiles. I’m a self-employed writer, and everywhere you seem to hear career advice to “brand” yourself and only post things that could help and not hurt a potential sale, blah blah blah. Well, I get the value in that, and of course it’s terrible to think of something you say alienating someone. But “branding” falls under the same umbrella for me as terms like “networking,” or “making connections,” which I find to be odious. It’s not that I don’t like meeting people or making friends or potentially getting work out of a social interaction–do I EVER–but I do want that to come about NATURALLY, in as unforced a way as possible, and without any agendas. Just because people like me. The whole thing smacks of fake to me, and I just can’t stand it. I don’t use people, and “networking” implies using people.

    So I’ve decided that this is my attitude: I am who I am, in life, and online. I don’t pretend to be something I’m not, whether that makes me look a little better or a little worse. Sometimes I use the English word, “fuck.” Often. Relax, people, it’s just a word. Sometimes I make jokes about blunders, or use double entendres, or go for the easy laugh over the “sale-able impression”. But part of the reason I’m self-employed is that I couldn’t stand the corporate bullshit, couldn’t stand the politics, and just wanted to get paid for being myself and doing what I do. If a potential client is turned off by what he or she reads in my Twitter feed, it’s probably best that we don’t work together, because I’ll always feel the pressure to live up to whatever specific impression I’ve been unlucky enough to make. I’m me. I’d rather have less work as myself than more work as some brand. The truth always comes out. The truth ALWAYS comes out, somewhere down the road. If we’re honest and genuine, not cheesy and sales-y, we’ll save ourselves a lot of heartache, messiness, and identity crises down the road, not to mention attract clients who genuinely like us.

    So I can’t promise people that we’ll always agree on everything I post. But I can promise that it’s all honest, and that I’m not using or manipulating anyone. I am a person. I am not a brand.

  • ed cyzewski

    This is a really interesting post, especially with the pressure that authors have to present a consistent brand or image. In one sense we should be authentic and consistent, but there are times when that can fall off the tracks.

    I met blogger Andrew Jones (Tallskinnykiwi) this week, and we had a great chat over tea. He was funnier and more gracious than he appeared on his blog, and he’s pretty darn funny and gracious to begin with. As he told some funny stories and gestured with his hands and bugged his eyes open at the hilarious parts, I was reminded that the internet only gives you a slice of someone. It’s a real slice, but it’s not the same as face to face communication.

  • Kristin T.

    Jennifer, this is beautiful: “I needed some faithful attendance and accountability and I found it in the most unlikely place.” Of course, as I wrote this post I couldn’t help but think about our friendship, too. We met long before social media was a reality, but social media has renewed and deepened a friendship that probably would have otherwise been lost. So thankful!

    erin, I was also thinking about you as I wrote this post, seeing as how you’re the person I invited to come for a visit! Now that I know you’re actually a “somber 400-pound man” I’m glad I never gave you my address. :) This is very true, in a freeing and also frightening way: “Social media can be an easy place to ‘try on’ new skin.” It’s important that we keep asking those questions of Self.

    Genevieve, I already told you this via Twitter, but your comment sums up what I’ve always liked most about you: “If a potential client is turned off by what he or she reads in my Twitter feed, it’s probably best that we don’t work together, because I’ll always feel the pressure to live up to whatever specific impression I’ve been unlucky enough to make. I’m me. I’d rather have less work as myself than more work as some brand.” Amen! I will say, though, that the word “branding” has gotten a bad rap, mostly because people mistakenly define it as a “costume” you put on, rather than as a true self you reveal. Not all branding efforts are false and misleading!

    ed, ah yes, the whole blogger/author persona is tough. I’ve sort of gone with the anti-brand brand, avoiding a focus on a single specialty, like parenting, divorce or faith. I’m not saying it’s the shortest path to success, but it is the only one I feel comfortable journeying down. (Btw, I love your story about meeting Andrew Jones—such a perfect example of where the real-life differences lie.)

  • Jennifer

    You know I was thinking of you, too. And so so thankful that we were able to reconnect. You add a rich element to my life I didn’t know I had been longing for.

  • The Modern Gal

    That kind of real-life meeting is what I love about blogging and Twitter! I guess if you spend long enough following someone’s blogs and tweets you can sense whether their persona is true-to-life or not. So far all of my real-life meetings have jibed with what I expected, and in some cases were even better than expected!

  • Michael

    I wonder how much benefit social media really has. We already have email and texting, but now we also have an electronic wall between us and our acquaintences and friends that replaces talking. When a family feud erupted on Facebook, my wife and I got off. For us, personally, we seem to get more out of face to face relationships. The old saying “out of sight out of mind” may have mire than a grain of truth in it.