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How not to lose yourself when the internet is down

When I was in Berlin recently, I spotted a T-shirt in a shop window. The slogan on it read: “I don’t do Facebook or Twitter I have a life”. Please, that’s so 2009.

The truth is that we live online and in so-called real life, at the same time, and this is the way it is going to be from now on. We have a digital self that we project out into the world via social media, and that self is rooted in another that goes to school, plays sport, watches TV — that person who does the things that people have done for generations.

But something has changed, forever.
For the first time in history we have a medium where millions of ordinary people have access to a mass audience. In the past, you had to be in the movies or on TV or radio. Thanks to social media, we’re all our own publicists now. And that version of ourselves that lives online, that digital self, is much, much bigger and more influential than the person sitting here right now. That’s the version that others will see before they meet you, if they ever actually do. It could be potential friends, girlfriends, employers, maybe even an angel investor for that amazing startup idea you have. So you need to be smart how you manage your digital self. Everything you do online leaves a trail for somebody to follow, whether you like it or not.

Social media is an amazingly powerful networking tool, as I have learned. Use it wisely and you’ll build a personal brand that will give you an advantage over all the other people out there also sitting in front of computers right now, people you’re competing against. Personal branding makes a lot of sense online because it’s so much easier to manage our image and the way others perceive us. We have control over the photos we post, the status updates we write, when we click Like and when we don’t. Our digital self is us, with the boring bits (mostly) edited out.

But all this image projection and perception management creates a problem. Research in the US suggests that narcissism is on the increase — young people are so busy talking about themselves to their audience that they can’t relate to others anymore. Empathy is declining. There’s a professor at MIT who argues that because people perform for the benefit of an audience on Facebook or Twitter, their very psychology is becoming a performance.

What she says is true — I know, because I’m guilty of that myself. But what does this mean for all of us, if we’re a just collection of photos of ourselves doing cool stuff and everyone is doing this constant look at me look at me look at me? We’re so busy showing and telling the world what we’re doing that we forget about what we’re being. Isn’t it funny how the people who aren’t there with you always end up being more important?

How many families still sit down together for dinner and communicate in grunts because they’re too busy reading emails or replying to messages? There’s a real danger that we become so obsessed with the friends and followers in our newsfeeds that we stop connecting with the people in the same room.

I’ve talked about the digital self and how it can impact on your real, offline self. But there’s another version of ourselves I want to talk about — and that’s the person you are when there’s no signal, and nobody’s looking. That’s your authentic self and the one that in the end matters most of all.

It’s easy to lose yourself online, don’t
How do you hold onto your authentic self while negotiating real life and managing your digital self? Here are a few things I have learnt:

  • First of all, pay attention. Most people don’t.

  • Understand that everything you say and do online will end up being a Google hit. So before you do anything, think of the consequences, because what happens in Vegas, or Umhlanga or Thailand doesn’t stay in there, it ends up on Facebook.
  • The one thing you’ll need most is your sense of humour — and not just because it’s the number one thing people look for in a partner. Humour helps give you the flexibility to accommodate others, important in a diverse society like ours.

Stupid things happen online
Forgive yourself when you do stupid things, because you will do stupid things. CEO of major South African bank FNB, Michael Jordaan makes the point that innovation only happens in an environment where it’s ok to make mistakes. But it’s also important to take responsibility for having made them in the first place.

Don’t let yourself be defined by brands. And don’t define others that way either, even people who wear Ed Hardy. Don’t buy everything people try to sell you — whether it’s breakfast cereal or ideas.

Get out into the world and look around. Nobody ever had a good idea sitting behind a desk.

And don’t spend all your time online. Sometimes you really do need to switch off and be in the here and now – to stop tweeting the story of your life and actually go out and live it.

As Steve Jobs said: “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

So remember this: Hold on to the person you are when you’re offline and nobody’s looking.

Image: Nathan J Clarkson

Author | Sarah Britten

Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten is the strategic planning director at Labstore South Africa. Her relationship status is hidden. More
  • Gjd21777

    Enjoyed that!

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