Why Use Social Media? To Discover Who You Really Are.

Sharing anything online is a risk. Whether it is a blog post, Tweet, YouTube video, Flickr photo or Facebook status update, each is involves putting something out there that can be taken the wrong way, or expose something about yourself that will affect how others feel about you.

Some people see this as placing a bet that can only yield positive results – that the world will likely become more enamored with you. Other people see this as placing a bet with largely negative consequences – that everything is fine as it is, and sharing of yourself online can only disrupt the careful balance of things.

So why share and interact online, either professionally or personally? I posit that doing so is not just about engaging with others and learning more about them, but that doing so allows you to find out more about who YOU are.

This is scary for most people. We assume we know who we are, what we stand for, and our place in the world. But we box ourselves in to job titles, to a town in which we are living, a circle of friends, and a daily routine. We tend to interact with those who are like ourselves, share a common context and shared set of identity and social structure.

When you start sharing more opening for all the world to see, outside of the social construct that surrounds you in your daily life, you share something that is uniquely you. So who are you? I’m reminded of Anthony Michael Hall’s classic pondering in The Breakfast Club:

The more I use social media, the more I share, the more I learn about myself. What I will say, and what I won’t say. How I react to people from a wide variety of places and perspectives. That I am constantly surprising myself, and constantly trying to find ways of being even more honest – of being less vanilla and expected. Of exploring who I am and who I can become.

This is also reflected back – how others react to me, and choose to (or not to) engage with me. How do I fit into the social situations of people from around the world, who have different goals, values and perspectives?

This extends to companies engaging in social media. I think a lot of brands don’t know who they are. They are run by people who joined the company long after it was founded, and only work in one small role. Corporate executives are often rewarded for delivering the expected, and for not rocking the boat for investors, shareholders and board members. They want to offend no one. Why do you think their mission statements all look the same, including everything but the kitchen sink. They are vague, inoffensive, and require no hard decisions. Every company seems to value about innovation, the customer, products, caring, blah blah blah all equally. The reality is, plenty of companies work in that middle ground: “good enough” products, at a reasonable price, with as much customer service as they can afford within a set budget. But they won’t say that. They say they are all about cutting edge innovation, doing whatever is necessary to please the customer, etc.

So when these companies and employees begin blogging, creating videos and Tweeting, it is a wild change from the corporate press releases that are vetted by legal and are written in the same language that the public relations team has used for years. Suddenly, when you create more content that isn’t vetted, you share more of who you really are. And this can be surprising even to the author.

My wife is an artist. I’ll watch her meticulously work on a painting for months, and then when finished, I’ll ask her what it means. She never knows. The process of creating and sharing is inherently one of self-discovery for her. I think that for many people, sharing on the web is the same thing.

Sure, we all feel we know who we are, but the truth is, we are all evolving. And the more we step out of our comfort zones, the more we share, the more we interact with others far outside the context of our daily lives, the more we learn about ourselves.

And that doing so puts us into a greater variety of situations to see what we are capable of. That this process can make us better people. More unique, more focused, more centered.

You are not the title on your business card. Your resume often adds no context as to how you worked, not just what you’ve worked on. That letter grade on a test says very little about you.

But sharing every day says a lot about you. And it builds an identity that is there for the world to see. Oftentimes, we know our skills, we know our responsibilities, but do we really know who we are? That answer will be different for everyone. And one that can be the journey of a lifetime to figure out.