In the era of the broadcast relationship, our partners and potential partners can now get an incredible sense of our identities in an instant, and our identities combine with theirs to create a shared online identity. This dynamic definitely creates new complexities for our relationships. When people examine our online selves today, they can see things they don’t like about us, which may immediately have a negative impact on our relationships, and we don’t even get the opportunity to explain ourselves first. It’s difficult not to judge a book by its cover, and these days the story of one’s life has a cover filled with information and photos.
An online identity can also be an amazing way to help us find the people we really fit with and care about. Having a mutual understanding of each other’s authentic identities is the best way of finding the people we want to share the intimate moments with in our lives and who have similar expectations, interests, and values. Simply put, when you’re authentic—online and offline—that’s when you’re most likely to find a keeper.
Facebook is incredibly powerful as a service precisely because people use their real names, identities, and interests. From the start, this was one of the biggest competitive advantages over rival social networking sites. It’s how people who know you can find you and add you to their friends list, get a sense of your personality, and choose whether to develop greater connections with you online and offline.
It’s no different for dating. The more you reveal what kind of person you really are, the more likely it is that someone compatible with you will take an interest, which then leads to conversations, plans, and dates.
Online dating is like the ultimate job interview. The emotional and personal stakes are high. It can also be a brutal process. Online dating is an interview where, with the push of a button, you can be instantly judged and compared to an infinite number of other candidates. This dynamic creates an incentive for people to find interesting new ways to differentiate themselves from the competition and to “brand” themselves in the most appealing light.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to differentiate oneself. It’s what’s needed today. But when people lie about themselves online, that’s when problems start. What’s the most important lesson for relationships today? Don’t try to be someone you’re not online.
One of the reasons Facebook works so well to promote authenticity is because it evolved as a community with a shared set of expectations and conventions around authentic identity, and telling the truth was expected and enforced by our friends. But when we don’t have those safeguards—and, in fact, everyone is trying to compete at being the most perfect—a vague interest in Lord of the Rings becomes a love of medieval folklore, sporadic attempts at boiling pasta means that a person enjoys cooking, and because someone went to the gym a couple of times last month that person is now training for an Ironman.
This is just asking for trouble. People who post inauthentic or inaccurate versions of themselves on dating sites may find themselves either struggling to explain their exaggerations, or on a date with someone trying to do the same. Ideally, if this happens, neither of you is really training for a full Ironman. But posting a misleading profile picture is definitely going to be noticed.
In the end, the truth usually comes out. If you do build a relationship with someone that begins with lies or exaggerations, the digital world makes it easier for those things to come back to haunt you. Your online identity leaves a digital trail across the web, on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, and blogs. That record just begs to be Googled, studied, and cross-referenced. So, don’t lie about your identity online. The truth comes out offline.
Remember that your identity doesn’t just belong to you anymore. The photos and posts you personally make are one side of the story, but the company you keep and the types of comments those people write on your posts says a lot about you as well. We are now judged not only by what we say, but also by what other people say about us.
If you’re inauthentic about the friends you accumulate online and add people you don’t really know, or people you’ve met only once in passing, this could cause your actual friends to be misled by a false sense of closeness when they meet these people, find them online, or see that you are the mutual “friend.” By contrast, if you meet someone who tells you about a friend you have in common, either online or offline, be sure to confirm it, just in case.
This requires we think carefully about the friends we let into our lives and allow to post or tag on our behalf. But it also emphasizes the importance of telling the truth at all stages of a relationship, online and offline.
We all have that “friend” who, even though he or she is only a peripheral acquaintance in real life, acts like our best friend online. That person who likes every single photo, favorites every single tweet, comments on everything, and tags you in photos you’re not even in because you’re “there in spirit.”
Last year, there was a lot of talk about a term called “catfishing,” when Notre Dame football player Manti Te’o found out that he had been cat fished—the girl he had been online dating for three years, had supported through cancer, and believed had recently passed away, was actually another guy, who had created a fake online identity. Turns out Manti Te’o had never had a relationship with that woman, because she had never existed.
Authenticity can be a painful thing for the heart to bear.
This article is an exerpt from Randi Zuckerberg’s new book, Dot Complicated: Untangling Our Wired Lives, available now.
Randi Zuckerberg is the CEO and founder of Zuckerberg Media, a tech savvy production company, and editor-in-chief of Dot Complicated, a modern lifestyle community and blog. She was an early employee of Facebook where she pioneered live streaming initiatives and struck groundbreaking deals with ABC and CNN. She has been nominated for an Emmy and is ranked among the “50 Digital Power Players” by the Hollywood Reporter. Zuckerberg is the author of Dot., an illustrated children’s book about a spunky little girl obsessed with electronic devices. She lives with her husband, Brent, and son, Asher, in Silicon Valley.