Be yourself, but bigger

I got the inspiration for this title from a Mailchimp ad I stumbled on while researching articles on social facilitation and our desire for fame.

Over the past few months, I’ve struggled with my identity on the internet, what I represent, why I share and what I should share. I’ve read a lot of things, and talked to a few people (thanks Onyekachi!) to help me figure out my shit, and now I’ve put together all these (other people) opinions plus (like 3%) original thought into … this.

The internet was revolutionary in many ways. When it changed everything, it also changed the audience that was available to us. It gave us a bigger, less personal audience. It made fame much easier, and based on our psychological need to be liked and socially recognized, we jumped at it.

On the subject of how it applies to me:

  1. I started to worry about my intentions for the content I share; I also harbored a concern that if I continued second-guessing all my social media activity, I would hardly ever post again. But I want to post, lol
  2. So, I tried to search for my own answers as to why I share the way I do on social media, and why I feel bad and withdrawn about it now.

PS: This article is not an indictment of people or how they use social media. I don’t give a shit, and I probably share more than the average person. I’m not “holier-than-thou” nor “deeper-than-rap”. This is an expression of my internal conflict.

To begin, let’s go back a few years.

Onyekachi and I recently talked about the “gbagaun” era, one of the periods during early Twitter where it was fashionable to call out typos and get retweets for it. We considered that this was our first introduction to the “cancel culture” that we have now, where snide and easy fame are in bed, churning out internet babies that can’t wait to get those retweets. This was me below (ThatMerryKid, lol) “gbagauningone of my friends.

There were entire social media personas like @GbagaunDetector that built a following on this craze (even though these days they tweet like the average Joe). We were very unaware of what we were perpetrating, and it didn’t really start off as the bullying that “cancel culture” is popular for now, even though it probably was. Some of us were even willing to make typos if it meant we’d be trending for it.

Looking back at my old tweets to see how I participated in the Gbagaun era was funny. The best thing I got out of it though, was that it allowed me articulate how I came to be this way on the internet. I’ll use Twitter as an example.

If you were anything like me on Twitter, this is the story:

It’s 2011, and you reset your Twitter password because now it’s cool.
At this point, the numbers were the holy grail. It was dope to have a lot of tweets. I remember TMC had 27,000 tweets or so oh he was the coolest brother.

It starts off being so cozy and friendly
The audience was family and friends, so it was, at the beginning, an extension of regular life, and not the escape from real life that we have now (thankful for this too though).

Good morning my neighbors!

And then the audience starts to grow
Some days Twitter felt like being in a room with celebrities. It was our first exposure to being in constant communication with distant strangers that become friends. I remember I had a crush on this particular chic that schooled in Ukraine but used Twitter so much she knew more about what was happening in Nigeria than I did.

Gradually, you realize so many different people are listening to you
It’s like being a Somolu preacher, carrying a microphone everywhere preaching the word. Except, people are actually listening to you. We were growing into this world, and adjusting to the expanding audience. My friends knew me as “ThatMerryKid”, now I realize why I may have been prompted changed it to “TheMerryKid”.

I really hope this was satire. :(

And then you start to perform
You make one joke, you get 200 retweets. You like the attention, now you gotta make more. Trends and hashtags were also a way to build the audience. We “made things trend”. We did #FollowFriday. We were unknowingly chasing fame, and creating an audience of people that had no context to our lives except for the content we were creating.

If we know anything about audiences, it’s that they tend to own you. You hear people talk about “making music for the fans”. It’s pretty much the same online. You become a publisher, and you have to make content for the fans (the haters too) to thrive.

I share my life partly because social media is the fastest way to keep my close ones and far friends abreast of my life, partly because it the quickest way to discuss my thoughts and get opinion without burdening the people I know personally, and in some spaces largely because over the years I’ve grown an audience, and I need to entertain them.

These days, when I think about the content I share, I want to be more of the first two and less of the last. The issue though, is that I believe it’s almost impossible to not be a publisher on the inters of net.

I recently stumbled upon (haha remember StumbleUpon?) an article about the dark side of social media. The author focused on Instagram sharing and faux perfection and emphasized a desire to “be herself” on the internet. It resonated with me and I started to think about the role that platforms play in all of this, and if we can really be ourselves on these platforms.

Take Twitter.

There is no way to reply to just someone on a public tweet without moving to that weird personal space called DMs. Maybe we should use DMs more, but until that happens all the conversation is public. And so frequently when we “correct” someone in this public space, we do it to create more content for our audience. Smarter people have called call it signaling. Which is why, deep down, we can’t wait for people to goof.

Pot: A platform that didn’t quickly control mob action or provide more flexible ways to restrict access to content (asides from outrightly padlocking your profile)

Water: Conversations that are always public to a large-ass audience with varying backgrounds and zero context

Indomie: The nature of humanity when there’s an audience

Spice: Social recognition and fame (retweets/follows) as reward for snark commentary

Twitter is served (h/t Kazeem Lawal on Behance)

Take Instagram.

The only way to actively participate on Instagram is to share a photo or video — a moment of your life. There are a ton of moments in every day, but you can only share one, or best case, a few minutes of videos. You have to curate yourself to participate.

Also take a look at the audience (at least for people like me that share personal stuff and not just work). Originally, your friends followed you. But over the years, those friends become strangers you used to know, but you still lug them around. Actual strangers also join them and follow you in hordes, so now your audience is more strangers than friends. These strangers now expect a persona, something to like.

What’s your story? Are you a happily married family brand? Are you the globetrotting, deep stuff sharing brand (🙃)? Once you’re aware of the audience (when you get the likes), you start to optimize for the things that bring the most attention, the things that fit your story.

Even when you’re not a liar or catfish, that person cannot be whatever you define as “you”, because it is curated. Some of your close friends may even make hearty jokes about “you on Instagram”.

We can all agree it’s okay to be a different you depending on the audience and platform. There’s really only a problem when, like me, one of the yous starts to diverge or conflict with the others.

Hawthorne effect and Social Facilitation suggest that we behave differently when people are watching. I believe we also behave differently depending on who’s watching. I’m a slightly different person with different sets of friends, and an even more different a person when I’m with family. That’s the way social interaction works.

If I’m not going to accept what I’m inclined to share, if I’m going to fight my online personas, maybe a good place to start is to pay more attention to the audience.

I’m standing on the podium, looking at the crowd of followers in front of me and I’m asking “how can I share personal stuff and still be myself”. Maybe a true personal life cannot really be shared with a crowd. Maybe, to start figuring shit out, I need to first say the grace and dismiss the congregation.

Real crowd pleaser