The following are based on observations of how people I know have handled the issues around content ownership and online presence. I’m not going to endorse any of them in particular as I think that those type of things differ based on many social factors, including but not limited to your work situation (some people may, by law, not have a choice), your age (it appears to me that, the younger you are, the more comfortable you are with disclosing more), the country you live in (my European and Asian friends tend to be more reserved).
So, without further ado, here are five ways I’ve witnessed people and companies using to manage their online presence:
- Obscurity: No participation is a form of management
- Controlled: Heavy use of controlling mechanism to parse communication.
- Broadcasting: Mainly using the services as tools to market one’s content in other areas.
- Additive: Sharing content on social networks that is not shared in other realms.
- All-in: Abandoning other forms of media distribution and exclusively leveraging social networks
We are now roughly half a decade to a decade into the social web phenomenon so few people or companies can claim to not have heard of the phenomenon. And yet, some do not appear on social networks. In my discussion with people or companies that do not participate, it seems that many people are simply choosing to not participate. In some cases, it is because they do not see the value: for example, Tina Fey recently explained that she’s not using Twitter by saying “I guess I feel if I had any jokes, I would just hold them”.
So the people who are not present on social network by choice often decide on that lack of presence for economic reason (figuring they may not want to share their content with the services’ owners).
Others have decided on obscurity as a way to avoid dealing with any issue that could arise out of conflicts due to their social media presence. This category of people may actually create more problems for themselves as they let others define them in the online social realm.
Last but not least is the pseudo-obscurity used by some, for example hiding their identity behind a pseudonym or something that does not link them to the non-online world. Many teens, for example, no longer use their real names on the likes of Facebook, for fear that college admission bureaus or potential employers could find them. This group is acutely aware of the fact that online records tend to be pretty permanents and that whatever is posted online by or about them can have a long term impact. This sub-group is an interesting one to observe because it shows a high level of engagement with social media while maintaining a similarly high level of anonymity.
This category of users tend to be more sophisticated when it comes to articulating arguments about their handling of social media. Some define broad categories and associated rules based on the services they use (for example, one may consider that LinkedIn is for work only but refuse to “friend” co-workers on Facebook or follow them on Twitter). A lot of teenagers also fall in that category, using finely tuned privacy controls on facebook, for example, to decide on who does and doesn’t see what they are up to.
This group of people is acutely aware of the image they want to project in the online world and works hard on sculpting a presence that is finely tuned to each of the micro-audiences they are trying to reach, whether they are friends, colleagues, schoolmates, or other communities of interest.
The level to which one does or does not exert that level of control over their online persona is often hard to discern as people who claim to belong to one of the other categories may actually be sculpting an image of themselves that mirrors the attributes of that category.
In the real world, one might called this persona a self-promoter. Any information they publish is related to themselves or their own product: come see my presentation, test out my product, buy my book, read my blog entry, vote for me in such and such poll, etc…
This also appears to be the model generally taken on by a lot of established corporation. The engagement here is not engagement but marketing, spewing out messages that barely differ from the type of marketing one might do with a billboard or a TV commercial (but, as some of the proponents of this approach would say, social media is cheaper than those other forms).
Sometimes, this behavior is merely the first sign of a beginner, trying to figure out the new medium but clinging to old models. Over time, one hopes, this persona can abandon the relentless me-me-me focus of their offerings and start participating in conversations with other actors in the space, while at the same time providing information from other sources in the community.
This persona tries to extend their offering by leveraging social media in a brand new way. For example, Andy Carvin appears to be pioneering a new form of journalism through Twitter, less based on his own reporting and more focused on curating and aggregating topic-specific content (in his case, the current uprisings in the middle east).
In the past, such a persona may have written pieces on blogs that would present a rounded view of a day’s event but now, thanks to services like Twitter or the Facebook status stream, providing pointers to content has become easier than ever.
In other cases, the social media services become a way to share things that may not fit anywhere else, maybe because they are not organized in a particular way or they are too small to share in a different forum.
For example, in my own use, a lot of what I initially posted on Twitter was links to stories or blog posts I had found interesting. Because I have a wide number of things I’m interested in, there is no overriding organizing principles to those links beyond the fact that I found them interesting. This can be frustrating to some of the people who try to follow as the lack of correlation may make the content unclear.
Think of this persona as the social media equivalent of Tourette syndrome. The idea here is that this persona engages in radical transparency by sharing everything, from where they are at any given time (using Foursquare and the likes), to what they’re eating, to how their bodily functions are doing. People in this category are often seen as oversharing by some of their readers.
One question that I have is whether this category truly exist or whether it is not more of a subset of a controlled experience. For example, it is fascinating to see how people who claim to be part of that category bristle at the idea of sharing some particular details of their lives: everyone has a line they will not cross when it comes to transparency. For some, it is about money; for others, it is about sex; for yet another group, it is about certain friends.
I’d venture that the all-in persona is mostly an invented one, pretending to create a high level of intimacy with followers/friends (fofriends?) in order to extract financial value out of that pseudo-intimacy. It is the kind of things that allows media stars to entertain their fans and retain them in the period between two revenue generating events, whether they are talks, conferences, concerts, books, movies, or other. It gives the fans a sense of closeness to the stars, while keeping them well at a distance.
Bonus category: Mixed
Ultimately, I suspect that a lot of people end up in a space that is actually a mix of the different personas I’ve highlighted above. For example, I’ve seen some people who are opting for obscurity in certain realms become broadcasters in others. And I’ve seen people pretending to be all-in pull back when it comes to certain subjects.
I suspect that there will be a continued discussion in the online space for the next decade at least as more people trying to define and understand what online personas are and where they would like to stand when it comes to their own persona in the online realm.