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Do our virtual identities give us authentic relationships?

5th November 2013


Do you feel pressure to define your 'socialness' through levels of engagement with social media? Influence measurement platforms like PeerIndex, Klout and Kred grade us based on the number of followers, friends and fans we have coupled with the frequency of online interactions between them. The scores give us benchmarks to compete against ourselves and the communities against which we're rated. Who doesn't love a little bit of competition? That's all good; but the trouble starts when we either consciously or unconsciously let technology and the virtual identities we create offer us the illusion of companionship without considering the demands of authentic real-world relationships. In essence, the incentivised demand on our personal time in order to remain an active participant in the virtual realm encroaches on the diminishing importance of authentic relationships. This only gets worse when we succumb to our addiction with social media and our online personas begin to direct our offline behaviour. How did we get here? When did we decide to cast aside the traditional social conventions that make a relationship authentic? And what does this mean for both individuals and businesses that are trying to maintain influential and meaningful relationships with the online community? Man has always been a social animal. It's part of our DNA. As Aristotle, noted: “if anyone is so self-sufficient to not have to partake in society, they are either beast or God.” With the evolution of new ways of being social through access to new technologies and devices, there is an abundance of the ability to share, connect and collaborate like never before. In a world that is 'always on', there now exists the ability to identify and connect with a broader audience on a global scale. However, our hyper-connected lives are being rewired for the digital age. We're over-stimulated, inundated with a constant barrage of irrelevant information and encouraged to over-communicate with our digital counterparts to feel 'human.' The average internet user is now a strange hybrid of producer and consumer, a ‘prosumer’, and the role is addictive. It's affecting our relationships, personal lives and creating an ever-widening division in our sense of self. Our addiction to our devices is becoming so psychologically powerful it's not just affecting what we do, but who we are as individuals. Our online personas are geared toward projecting our ideal self. They allow us to control, edit and 'touch up' the bits of us we want to present to the digital world. While our offline relationships are rich and messy, our online personas are as we want it to be, one status update after another. Sherry Turkle describes this in TED talk: Connected, but alone? She explains how our constant need to feel connected has taken away our ability to feel human in solitude. This notion of the ‘digital castaway’, is now a problem that needs to be solved. "I share, therefore I am," has become our default means of social relevance and meaningful existence. Today we have more smartphones and devices joining the global conversation than babies are born. The convergence of the telephone and the computer has created a new ecosystem of digital interactivity that fundamentally redefines our capacity for interpersonal engagement. As billions come online, we expect more from technology and less from each other. Our devices and online personas are redefining human connectivity and communication. According to research conducted by Assisted Living Today, the average attention span today is 5 seconds. Ten years ago, it was 12 minutes. That's a pretty drastic change. Our behaviour in social networking sites, exaggerating the otherwise mundane and constantly looking for opportunities to self-promote is creating distracted and addictive users. It's addictive precisely because it gives us something which the real world lacks - immediacy and a sense of clarity and belonging as an individual. This has huge implications for the manner in which organisations interact with their ecosystem of employees, customers and the community at large. The need for brands to communicate a higher sense of purpose, and create emotional connections with consumers has never been stronger. The big opportunity offered by the use of social media is the shift to the 'Intention Economy,' i.e. the ability to understand customer needs not as events that happened in the past and as recorded by customers, but in real time. Not only that, but along with the presence of personal individuality manifested online, brands now have that same ability to create a unique and authentic identity within these shared social networks. As both consumers and brands hone their social prowess and voice their intentions and aspirations publicly they are simultaneously discovering a new world of possibilities in their capacity to engage in authentic and meaningful discourse online. With this development comes the opportunity for brands to build a digital voice that resonates with their audience. The challenge permeating this discussion then is how, with the knowledge that the consumer is projecting an ideal ‘self’ geared toward mass consumption, do brands continue to engage them while maintaining that voice of authenticity? What do #WEthink? Jeff Reynolds is Insights & Analytics lead analyst and Girish is EMEA Client Development Director at Waggener Edstrom Worldwide.

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