How to be vulnerable on social media

Photo: Exploding Dog

Vulnerability is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. It’s kind of an inevitable subject to ponder when you’re working in social media. Sure, there are a lot of corporate standards surfacing for transparency and social media (you can just look to the work of Charlene Li as one example). But the personal question is only one you can answer yourself—will people trust me if I share my personal struggles? Will it make me look lame? Weak? Self-pitying? Or worst: emo? And when you don't fit into the old boy's club in a corporate environment, it can sometimes feel that all of the world’s distrust will weigh your youth against your eagerness and smarts and come out judging you for just your babyface.

There are a lot of arguments for being vulnerable on social media, i.e. The Public. It makes it easier for people to relate to you, people say. It shows you’re a real person. It shows that you’re authentic.

But the truth is that a lot of people love gossip, too. And there is a reason why the human train wrecks that are reality TV shows do so dependably well on the networks. People love drama. And not always out of compassion. The spectacle can become self indulgent. You can make money off of it. You can gain fame. But you can also lose yourself and crash and burn.

So it’s our job to, yes, be authentic and to relate to others. But it doesn’t need to be meaningless or a target for internet rubberneckers.

And then I started to observe that there is a way to be very successful at being vulnerable on social media. And I think one of the people who embraces all these principles best is Penelope Trunk. 

Penelope Trunk is widely recognized for her popular blog about “the intersection of work and life.” She shares with graphic, almost embarrassing honesty about her struggle with Asperger syndrome, the trials and tribulations of her sex life and love life (if you’d like to distinguish the two), and the challenges of launching a startup. As a blogger, she is able to share facts and insights about herself that make many people squirm—but ultimately she still wins the trust of a large readership.

How can we embrace the same kind of vulnerability? I learned a few from reading Penelope Trunk's blog:

  1. Tell a good personal story. When Penelope discusses her vulnerabilities, it’s more than a laundry list of insecurities, trips, and falls. She tells a personal story from her real life—and she does so with excruciating honesty. It’s an effective way to make her blog interesting instead of just emo. This is where the bulk of where she exposes herself and her vulnerability. The story is immersive and allows you to care about the author.
  2. Give concrete tips on how to beat that vulnerability. This is the biggest principle I observed. Penelope might spend 1,000 words talking about how she feels terribly inadequate at something. But then she focuses the rest of the post on actionable ways she’s dealt with those feelings. Sometimes this part even comes below the fold. It’s still effective, though—the stories that she starts have a lot of traction.
  3. Take a strong stance. Penelope’s advice is often extreme. She’ll frequently defy the conventional wisdom and stir up controversy. This not only makes her blog posts a good conversation starter. It makes her decisive and demonstrates her analytical skills. While most people focus on the actual conclusions, what builds credibility is the thinking process. In this way, we shouldn’t stress out as much about being right or wrong—we all change our minds in life. But we should focus on the quality of thinking and the efficacy of our writing to really say something.
  4. Build credit. Following this formula actually builds her credibility with her readers. So, when she does occasionally share stories without advice to follow, she’s already established herself as a smart, thoughtful person who can share hardships without wallowing.

How much do you like to share about yourself online? Do you have certain safeguards?

5 responses
My two favourite oxymorons are "Reality Television" and "Holy Roman Empire." They have a lot in common, but if they were to marry the divorce would be in the sequel.

Authenticity is important because that's what people want: Some people can turn the light inward, but others get lost along the way. Foibles build credibility because everybody knows that we all have them and apart from the Great American Pastime of conspiracy theory, another guessing game we've cultivated is "What's Yours?" I blame psychotherapy.

When you go shopping, you want the genuine article, not some cheap knock-off. People seem to forget that a blog is a product: It's branding often lies in its character, which sometimes comes in the form of "personal spice."

I didn't have to write this many lines to leave a comment or to make a point, but neither did I have to lament on intimate failures to express my uniqueness. Besides, I don't think "The Weeping Programmer" would be a big seller ;)

P.S. I did have to filll out a CAPTCHA to post that comment, so I could be wrong.
Ernie, you bring up some very thoughtful points. Yes, authenticity is totally what people want!
Thank You! Also, given the social challenges of Asperger's in Penelope's case, it would be natural to see some interaction foibles presént, so the logical target audience ought to be expecting such. One remarkable feature of such a blog would be that someone with Asperger Syndrome would be willing (or even able) to confront such obstacles and find ways to overcome them. That's also the kind of audience that can grow as people learn to understand such challenges.
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