Art of the humblebrag? Social media allows us to test new social norms
Published Wednesday, March 20, 2013 3:06PM EDT
TORONTO -- So, you finally ran your first marathon. Do you rush online to share the big news with friends and followers on your social networks? How much proud and enthusiastic gushing is endearing and how much is too much?
Since digital communication is notoriously open to misinterpretation, should you use some kind of social media cue to suggest you're trying to be modest, even as you tell the world you've done something really, really great?
For many social media users, it's an all too familiar internal monologue that's made the Twitter hashtag #humblebrag commonplace.
Originally coined by comedian and TV writer Harris Wittels in 2010 as a way to sarcastically call out some of the most obnoxious Twitter braggarts, the hashtag evolved into a tool for social media users to broadcast their accomplishments while signalling that they feel a little awkward doing so.
"I love the humblebrag, it strikes me as a kind of quintessentially Canadian manoeuvre," says Aimee Morrison, a University of Waterloo associate professor who researches digital culture.
"In this social media era we are having to create and adjust to new social norms around self disclosure and how we talk about ourselves, because although we think of social media as being interactive and conversational, it's actually a series of interwoven monologues by individual users.
"So we've developed mechanisms by which to get out information we need to share with others -- some of which sounds like bragging -- and we had to find a way to do that that is still socially acceptable."
If you ask Mitch Joel, president of the Twist Image marketing agency and an influential social media user and commentator, there's a good kind of humblebrag and a bad kind -- whether users actually use the hashtag or not in their personal tweets.
"I think there's part of it where we're publishing things in the hopes that people will think our lives are more interesting than theirs and I think that's the sort of negative one," Joel says.
"I think the positive one is where we're publishing things in the hopes that people will connect and find value in the things we're creating."
He's struggled in the past with trying to figure out how the act of promoting his work on social media can come off as the wrong kind of humblebrag, or too overtly promotional, which may not connect with his followers.
He admitted a recent tweet about pre-orders of his new book, "CTRL ALT Delete -- Reboot Your Business. Reboot Your Life. Your Future Depends On It," fell into the less desirable category.
"When I tweet out (something like), 'Pretty amazed that my book cracked No. 1 in a couple of categories on Amazon and it's only coming out May 21,' that's like the sort of thing I sort of get throwing up in my own mouth about. But you gotta do it because we live in this world where everybody's a media outlet and producing content -- text, images, audio, video -- if you don't talk about yourself it's somewhat hard to get others to, because they're talking about themselves."
Even those without a business interest online or something to promote shouldn't be afraid to share their good news with others, he adds.
"For the average person, I think these (social media) channels are really good because it gives them that valve, that place of release, to talk about their lives and share with whoever it is that wants to connect," Joel says.
Joe Ginese, who recently wrote a rant about the #humblebrag concept on his blog, says he'd rather see people just be proud of their accomplishments without thinking twice about how others might take it.
"It's almost like you're ashamed of celebrating something and you downplay it by attaching that hashtag," Ginese says.
"Some of it is a confidence problem, I don't know if it's people don't want to come off as conceited or come off as, 'Look at me, I'm bragging,' but there comes a point that if you're not advocating enough for yourself and what you're doing, you're selling yourself short. You're kind of downplaying how great you are to the point that you want to be so humble that people are just going to step all over you.
"I think earlier in my online development I did have (self-confidence issues) but now I'm like, 'Screw it, if I ran a good race I'm going to let you know I ran a good race and be excited about it."'
Morrison says social media users have probably developed their online voice when they can boast a bit online without the #humblebrag hashtag, using enough humility in their writing that no overt wink-wink, nudge-nudge signal to readers is needed.
"I think people who hashtag their own stuff as a #humblebrag are aware they're not doing it correctly yet. They can't stop themselves from (using the hashtag) because they feel awkward about it and want to flag that awkwardness as part of the conversation," Morrison says, adding that using 140 character tweets doesn't make the task easy.
"It's so short that people don't have the luxury of crafting those convoluted sentences that we use in real life to sort of disguise our brags in a kind of humble wrapping. On Twitter you have to pretty much come right out and say it."
Of course, there's one way to never use #humblebrag. Those who regularly lean on the hashtag as a phoney excuse to overtly gloat about this or that should be prepared to lose some followers. It's usually transparent and just comes off as crass.
"There's nothing humble about that, right?" says Morrison.
"It's just a straight out brag ... the person is really just trying to wrap with a hashtag some humility around what is really a bald brag."