A curious thing happened a few years ago when I came back to Facebook after a break: I was afraid to post anything.
Well not afraid exactly, but confused: I couldn’t think of anything that would make equal sense to all of my Facebook friends. If I posted about the perils of venture capital, my non-work friends wouldn’t care much about it, and if I posted about my kids, my work friends might find it strange.
It turns out this wasn’t a problem of imagination — it was a problem of identity.
Basically, I couldn’t figure out a way to post something that would fit all of my various identities — in other words, I couldn’t find any single status update that would fit all of the roles I was playing in my life.
This concerned me.
I wasn’t so worried about not finding the right words to say. mind you. What worried me was that I was playing so many roles and that some of them seemed to run counter to others (an enterprise software company CEO who also played guitar and liked to read books on quantum physics and play Monopoly with his kids? I wasn’t sure how to hold all of those disparate things together.)
In the end I need not have been worried: the problem is not a new one. If we take a paleo-view on all of this we see that even in the earliest iterations of culture, individuals had to play multiple and sometimes conflicting roles (take the tribal chief, who also had a role as a mate, a hunter among hunters, a father, and a son).
The real challenge I was facing, though, was that the Facebook of a few years ago didn’t support the idea of context. Anything I published to the site was by definition broadcast to all of my friends, regardless of the role that I played in their lives and they played in mine. Colleagues and high school friends and my family all got the same thing. This, of course, has led people to all kinds of curious decisions about using Facebook — only accepting friend requests from coworkers at or above them on the org chart for example (that is, people that fit certain contexts) or even creating multiple Facebook profiles to represent separate personae (I know many teachers that have done this).
Google was tackling precisely this problem when they launched Google+ with the concept of circles at the core — the “circle” idea in Google+ is centered around identity, and basically allows me to show different faces to different groups of people. Facebook followed the circles experiment with its own take, allowing Facebook users to publish only “to” (or “at”) certain groups of friends, excluding others.
The reality, though, is that the process of building and maintaining theses “contexts” in Facebook and Google+ are too cumbersome to be of much use, so not many people use them. What has resulted, though, is a little unexpected: I would argue that these technologies have caused a kind of “collapse” of multiple identities back down into a single cohesive identity for many of us.
This is a wild and unprecedented result, if its true. I can say that for me this is exactly what has happened — I decided that the easiest thing to do was collapse all of the personae, and settle on just one: me. The result is that what I write here, on Facebook, on Twitter, and pretty much anywhere else is written in the same voice and from the same viewpoint. I don’t attempt much to manage this identity vs. that one anymore. And I’m much happier for it.
It’s pretty clear to me that I’m not the only one that has made this choice and is now living this way. I don’t have to look much further than Facebook itself to see friends of mine that are captains of industry posting pictures of themselves in shirtsleeves at the neighborhood bbq. And while it may make PR people and image consultants squirm, I think the effect is much more trust and authenticity than could ever be effectively manufactured by marketers. It can lead to some messiness, to be sure, but being human is a messy business, and I’ll take messy and authentic over polished and opaque any day.