I am pretty good at keeping my personal information private, so I tend not to think of my banking app as part of my online presence. Still, it somehow found a way to fit into how I present myself online. Namely, when I log in to my banking app, it prompts me with a phrase and image that I can confirm are indeed associated with my account —  an account I made at age 16 and have not altered since. 

The image and phrase I chose, while holding my first paycheck and full of youthful ignorance, have shown themselves over time to be essentially gross lies. In the interest of protecting my bank account, I’ll give only a rough explanation: the image is like a gold medal and the phrase is along the lines of “I am a huge success.”

Every time I log in now, I laugh a little for a few reasons: A) I have a warped sense of humor that allows me to laugh at literally anything, B) laughing before I see my account balance is a good primer for being more positive than I should in the face of my meager sums and C) my 16-year-old self had huge aspirations for what this new bank account meant for me and my future. The reality is perhaps less envious than what I might’ve hoped.

I wish I could go back in time to hug my high-school self and apologize, but also to thank her for believing in us so strongly (and perhaps irrationally). That kid may have been an idiot, but she did have chutzpah

In a larger sense, the weird mismatch between the login phrase and my account balance demonstrates to me that who we are online is often not reflective of our reality. Online we are given the opportunity to reinvent ourselves. We are much more prone to sharing our successes and good days online than posting pictures of ourselves splattered with soup after we’ve tripped down some stairs. (In general. Just as an example. That hasn’t happened to me.)

In a way, I can guarantee that we’ve all been dishonest online (some of us more than others). I don’t necessarily mean claiming on Facebook that “I have a girlfriend in Canada who you won’t meet but absolutely exists” so much as giving off a vibe of “I drink champagne daily” on Instagram.

The lying we do through self-branding and omission online isn’t a negative thing necessarily, or even completely avoidable. It’s simply not possible to accurately represent who we are in all our wonderful complexities on social media.

Furthermore, we are prone to censoring ourselves when faced with a platform’s shortcomings and unspoken rules, such as limiting our cursing if family is going to see a post or censoring our conspiracy theories in case a future employer goes snooping (despite the powerful impulse to convince everyone that Jupiter isn’t real; we’ve all been there).

In fact, these positive lies can be seen as aspirational; these posts may not represent our true selves, but it’s how we might like to be seen or how we wish we lived and felt all the time. I may post concert videos and flattering selfies on Instagram, but that’s not my day-to-day life. My online presence is more of a highlight reel, leaving out the less than stellar moments, like last week when I accidentally fell asleep on top of a fun size Mr. Goodbar and woke up with melted chocolate everywhere.

There are legitimate reasons I don’t share everything, from a desire for privacy to not feeling the need to document the mundanity of my everyday life. More often, though, it comes down to wanting a positive response from others. I can rephrase my thoughts to come across as particularly eloquent or impactful, and I can cherry pick the moments that I share, making public only as much as I want others to see. Our online revisions can be powerful things that let us display a filtered version of the best parts of ourselves.

That being said, dishonesty is dishonesty, and it can have side effects on our happiness and self-worth. Studies show that while seeing positive posts online can influence us to think positively as well, seeing nothing but positive posts from others can lead us to negatively compare ourselves and our lives to the stories that others are sharing about themselves and their own lives.

Knowing this, I’d like to challenge all of us, myself included, to live more honestly by documenting our failures. While I might happily post on Facebook about a new job, I can also push myself to acknowledge the handfuls of interviews that didn’t pan out before it. Or while I might post a picture on Instagram with my crew on a night out, I can also share a video of myself pawing through my clothes pile (closets are for quitters) to find something clean to wear and then crying over how bad I am at makeup. Now That’s What I Call Honesty! 

Maybe by not only documenting my aspirational, ideal self, but also my awkward, not-yet-successful self, I can create a digital archive of honest self-growth over the years, as well as a more realistic representation of myself online. If others are going to compare themselves to me, they might as well be doing it with something closer to the real thing.

I might even make others feel better about their lives in comparison when they see a photo of me with soup spilled all over my jeans! (Again, just an example. Not a thing I’ve done recently.) Perhaps in trying this small extra layer of online honesty, I’ll one day merit that gold medal that my 16-year-old self felt I deserved. Maybe I’ll even earn the phrase, “I am a huge success.”

Sarah Leeson can be reached at sleeson@umich.edu.

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