Social media make me who I am. This has nothing to do with my job or with spending lots of time on social media (because I don’t, really). Social media make me who I am because of all the decisions social media force me to make with every tweet, every status update and every blog post.
Social media force me to decide what music I like, what my political views are, or even what I did tonight. Of course, those views and preferences and facts exist regardless of Facebook or Twitter or YouTube. But whether I share them with my online networks, and on what terms, comes down to a bunch of tiny, semi-conscious editorial decisions. I may decide to tweet about the new Radiohead album, but not the new Barenaked Ladies. I may post a photo from my trip to Austin for SXSW, but not my trip to Miami to stay with my snowbird grandma. I’m happy to take a potshot at the Tea Party, but my thoughts on Israel/Palestine may be a little too nuanced and touchy to expose to Likes, comments or @ replys.
You may call the product of these editorial decisions my “brand,” but that makes it seem like I’m trying to sell something. I prefer to call it my public self. Personally, I’m not ready to embrace the sort of radical transparency espoused by digital utopians like Jeff Jarvis. There are some things I’d prefer to keep to myself. Part of this is probably J-School baggage. A journalist never carries a sign at a protest or reveals which candidate he supports, my journalism professors taught me. Part of this is probably middle child syndrome. When I was five I refused to let my birthday party guests sing happy birthday, my parents love to remind me; I didn’t like the attention.
Picture a Venn diagram with two circles, one private, one public. Our social media selves exist in the sweet spot where the circles intersect. The big innovation of Google+ was that it allowed us to keep those circles apart. But, as Farhad Manjoo has noted, keeping them apart can be tedious, “like creating a seating chart for your wedding.” I don’t want to make all those decisions all the time. I don’t want to cultivate a “family self” and a “professional self” and a “high school friends” self.
Having one public self forces me to decide how sarcastic I am (trying to tone it down), how silly I’m willing to look (pretty silly) and what I’m ready to go to bat for (black licorice, Entourage, Beyoncé). And over time those decisions form a pretty complete picture of who I am. Whether I Like it or not