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4 Tips to Create Meaningful, Authentic Connections Online

Three years ago, I was living in the Bay Area, working for a start-up website as a Community and Content and Manager. Every day, I signed online and wrote for hours about a topic that meant absolutely nothing to me.

I accepted the position because it was a dramatic pay increase from my previous temp and freelance lifestyle and it afforded me my first solo apartment. I’d held dozens of different jobs in my time as I searched for meaningful work, and I certainly worked hard but I always felt like I’d failed when it came to taking care of myself.

I simultaneously worked 50+ hour weeks to build my freelance resume and stockpiled ramen noodles which felt disheartening to say the least. When I had a desk, a briefcase, and copious amounts of overtime where other people had a social life, I felt accomplished and important.

It wasn’t until the office closed and I began working from home that I realized how unfulfilled I felt.

I didn’t want to develop some calculated online persona to represent my company—I wanted to be my authentic self. I didn’t want to write about something that meant absolutely nothing to me for the sake of getting paid. And I didn’t want to engage with people superficially with an eye on Google Analytics.

If I signed onto a social networking site with a link to something I wrote, I wanted my heart to be in it. If I commented on someone else’s blog, I didn’t want it to be a thinly veiled attempt to drive traffic back to my employer’s site. I wanted my words and interactions to mean something more than that.

These past couple years building Tiny Buddha on Twitter, then here, and finally on Facebook, I’ve learned a lot about using the web in an authentic, purposeful way. Of course there’s still more to learn, but I’ve formed a few conclusions based on my experience thus far.

Whether you work online, you’re developing your own brand, or you only use the web recreationally, you may find these tips helpful in connecting meaningfully and authentically online.

How to Form Meaningful, Authentic Online Connections

The biggest obstacle to meaningful online connecting, I’ve found, is personal branding. Authenticity doesn’t have to mean complete transparency, but it does mean acknowledging what you really think and feel. Very rarely does a person think and feel only things that align with a polished online persona.

No one is a complete expert. No one has all the answers on any topic. No one is always happy and positive.

I’m by no means suggesting we should complain excessively or be insensitive or rude online. I’m merely suggesting that we recognize when we’re writing or portraying something that isn’t true to our actual experience, and then challenge that instinct.

This can be a little tricky because the reality is that personal branding is important if you’re establishing a business online. But it is possible to brand yourself while maintaining authenticity. To start:

1. Get comfortable saying, “I don’t know.”

When a customer walks into a store, they’d much rather hear, “I don’t know, but I’ll find someone who does” than waste their time with someone who’s too proud to ask for help. The same is true with online businesses and brands.

We trust people when they’re brave enough to acknowledge what they do and don’t know. You don’t need to feign omniscience to build authority. You just need to have a passion and commitment for what you do, backed up by consistency and hard work.

Go ahead and acknowledge your humanity. We connect and do business with humans, and all humans have room to grow.

2. Let yourself be vulnerable.

This is similar to acknowledging what you don’t know, but it encompasses more than that—it’s also about sharing what you actually think and feel.

Someone asked me recently what I do when I can’t answer the question, “How can I be inspiring today?” I told him it helps that I never ask myself that. I ask myself, “How can I be authentic today?”

If I’m feeling oversensitive, I write about dealing with criticism. If I’m feeling overwhelmed, I write about dealing with stress. And right within those posts, I acknowledge my own struggles.

Not everyone has an outlet in which this type of radical honesty feels appropriate; but we can all get a little more open when it comes to sharing what’s really on our minds.

At the end of the day, we’re all just people, and it’s our nature to want to really connect with each other—not with personas and brands, but with other real people who can relate to the universal struggles we all face. If we want to experience that with other people, we have to be willing to show them how it’s done.

3. Ask for what you really want.

Conventional wisdom suggests we should network, build relationships, give freely, and then await reciprocal action. In a way, this is smart advice. When you give without expectation, oftentimes your own needs get met—but this type of connecting often does entail expectation, albeit an unspoken one.

I’ve found it’s far more effective to simply be upfront with people. In the end, most of us really do want to help each other. In fact, of all the bloggers I’ve encountered online, the vast majority say that their purpose is to help people.

So be direct. If you’re looking for guidance or advice, ask for it. If you’d like someone to review your book, instead of asking if you can send it—no strings attached—ask outright if they’ll consider reviewing it. If you’re hoping to create some type of mutually beneficial arrangement with another blogger, put it out there upfront.

We don’t need to hide that we want to promote ourselves and earn money. Life requires us all to do that. We just need to find the courage to ask for what we need, and remember to be there for people who may need something from us.

4. Treat the web like an actual crowd.

At last year’s Wisdom 2.0 Conference, one of the speakers commented that his father wanted more Twitter followers. He reminded his Dad that in real life, 200 people would be a huge crowd—why did he feel the need to speak to thousands of people online? If that were real life, he’d likely feel overwhelmed and nervous with such a massive audience.

Sometimes it seems like a completely different experience to share ourselves behind the safety of a computer—as if there aren’t really that many people listening and our words somehow have a different impact than when we can actually hear their echo.

One thing I try to do when I connect with people online is visual them standing in front of me. If I tweet something on my personal account, I visualize that I’m actually saying it to more than 11,000 people. If I’m writing an email or commenting on someone’s blog, I imagine they’re sitting in a chair next to me, looking right into my eyes.

When I think about someone looking at me and me seeing them, suddenly it feels a lot easier to peel away pretense and speak directly from my heart. In visualizing the other person or people as flesh-and-blood human beings, it feels a lot more natural to strip away my ego and simply be me.

I read the other day that most people spend the majority of their time online using social networking sites. We’re increasingly plugged in these days with cell phones and other gadgets, and more often than not that involves connecting with each other.

Connecting is a basic human need–whether or not we make those relationships authentic and meaningful is entirely up to us.


Photo by SCA Svenska Cellulosa Aktiebolaget

Avatar of Lori Deschene

About Lori Deschene

Tiny Buddha Founder Lori Deschene is the author of the Tiny Wisdom eBook series (which includes one free eBook) & co-founder of Recreate Your Life Story, an eCourse that helps you get unstuck & change your life. She's now seeking stories to include in her next book, 365 Tiny Love Challenges by Tiny Buddha. Click here to share your story! For inspiring posts and wisdom quotes, follow Tiny Buddha on Twitter & Facebook.

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  • http://big-zen.blogspot.com/ Big Zen

    It’s strange in the last few days I keep coming across the topic of authenticity and vulnerability and its importance in connecting with people. I even wrote about it myself and here it is again! Some very good tips, keep up the great work.

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    Thanks Big. I think this is a challenge for a lot of us online. Especially since we’re spending an increasing amount of time on the web, it’s so important for our happiness to really connect with each. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  • Anonymous

    Lori, I love this post – it really sums up the issues we are all facing and then gives some great solutions. What a game changer to remember 200 people would thrill me in a room. Thanks for changing my perspective!

  • JBird

    Everything you write is such a breath of fresh air! I love your posts and I love your daily newsletter. Thank you for having such a wonderul, authentic voice!

  • JBird

    Everything you write is such a breath of fresh air! I love your posts and I love your daily newsletter. Thank you for having such a wonderul, authentic voice!

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    Thank you so much! I love writing here, and I’m honored by your compliments. I’m so glad you enjoy Tiny Buddha =)

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    You’re most welcome! I think that it’s becoming more and more common for people to amass massive online followings without actually having a high engagement level. If everyone is following thousands of people and those people are all following back, it becomes increasingly difficult to truly engage.

    I know I personally take the most away from actual conversations with people. It’s so satisfying and always educational as I move forward with the site and my writing.

    You seem to have authenticity down pat. I love your openness and the insights you share in your writing. You’re an inspiration to me!

    Lori

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    You’re most welcome! I think that it’s becoming more and more common for people to amass massive online followings without actually having a high engagement level. If everyone is following thousands of people and those people are all following back, it becomes increasingly difficult to truly engage.

    I know I personally take the most away from actual conversations with people. It’s so satisfying and always educational as I move forward with the site and my writing.

    You seem to have authenticity down pat. I love your openness and the insights you share in your writing. You’re an inspiration to me!

    Lori

  • Chrisyowell

    A flea can ride on a horse’s back for a thousand miles without getting tired or hungry.
    Quote from LaoTzu’s Further Writings.

  • Chrisyowell

    Thanks for this post! tiny budda and all your other ones as well!

  • http://www.dcgla.com/it-support-los-angeles/it-consulting-los-angeles.html Jsgramesmith

    I like this 4 tips for online connection, its delicious post.

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    Thank you for reading!

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    You are most welcome. Thank you for reading. =)

  • Thefinallink

    hello i run a non profit organisation http://weareblessedandunderuniversallaw.com and would like you to join this group or make a donation its to raise awarness for people who suffers from mental illness me being one i am also looking for sponsorship please look at the site and if you do join be sure to add me as friend as you will only see one page with me as administrator you will see all 21 blogs and videos

  • Brianneburrowes

    Lori, I really liked this post. I can relate to many of the things you said in it. I especially liked your advice about imagining saying out loud what you tweet to the number of followers you have. I should think of that more often when I tweet personally, but I often just write what I’m feeling at that moment. Anyway, great post. I love reading your thoughts. =)

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    Thanks Brianne. I’ve done that, as well. My instinct is often to just put it out there. I wear my heart on my sleeve, so sometimes I would say those things to a massive crowd! I think if we’re being true to ourselves, wherever we communicate, we’re in good shape. =)

  • azucar

    Lori, I’m new to your site and I really enjoy all of the articles I’ve read so far. This article is so helpful – I both work and am a college senior online. It sometimes feels hard to really connect w/ people online versus how it was in a real classroom, for example! I’m used to thinking this is just one of the “downfalls” of technology but this article is making me think about that again… I’m going to try visualizing who I’m talking to like you suggested… I really think that’s my favorite tip :) thanks for sharing…

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    Hi there,

    Welcome to Tiny Buddha! I’m glad this post was helpful for you. How wonderful that you’re able to complete all your courses online. My brother is a senior doing the same, actually, and I hope he is also looking for ways to connect with people. I think if you can have the convenience of taking classes on the web and the ability to form meaningful relationships, it’s truly the best of both worlds.

    Thanks for reading and commenting =)

    Lori

  • http://www.twitter.com/heartonsleevexx heartonsleeveweakatknees

    This is a lovely post – I just wrote an article on my site (http://www.heartonsleeveweakatknees.com) scheduled for this Thurs so it won’t appear yet – but it links quite closely to how I feel I wish to be my authentic self online and connect with others.

    An interesting thing which freaks me out a little is that it can be so easy to access other’s thoughts & feelings – facebook feeds, blog posts etc. & just scroll past them. I remember back in the days when I used to have a livejournal I would always find it strange that I could (if I wanted to) scroll past people’s feelings and emotions without even giving it any attention at all. I hated that idea, so I always only read others blogs/website/my facebook feed – when I genuinely feel like I have time to connect and communicate. Can you imagine doing that, offline? Someone opening up their heart & soul to you, & just ignoring it. Obviously, people online don’t know that someone might have done that, but the principle just doesn’t seem right. The beauty of this form of connection should be that it expands the reach, not numbs the feelings.

    Anyway, great post! I can relate.

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    That’s such a great point. I feel that way sometimes with comments and emails actually. I receive a lot of emails (and sometimes comments) from people looking for advice. They’re often very open about their experiences, even if we’ve never actually connected before. I feel compelled to write back to everyone, whether I have the time or not.

    If someone opens up and trusts me with their feelings and struggles, I want them to know I value that trust–and that even if I don’t know them, I hear them and I’m there.

    Thanks for reading. I’ll check out your upcoming post. =)

    Lori

  • http://www.fredtracy.com/ Fred Tracy

    Awesome post! I’ve walked the line between promoting my site and being authentic, and I think it’s always best to be on the side of authenticity. People can tell when you’re being fake, and that could hurt your brand even more, not to mention it’s just boring to fake it!

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    I agree Fred! I’m not a big fan of over-the-top self promotion. Tony Hsieh from Zappos said they spend all the money they would otherwise put into advertising into customer service. By focusing on creating value for customers, they naturally create word-of-mouth marketing. I try to emulate his system. I don’t push myself/my ideas on people, but I put my heart into what I do and make the most of every encounter.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Kupo.Gew Michael Alexander Luzzi

    I believe, this is what I’ve been looking for in my faith and path in life! Thank you Lori! I’m truly touched by this.

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    You’re most welcome! =)

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  • Dr. Mike

    Lori,
    I’ve just found Tiny Buddha recently. I really enjoy your perspective and ability to bring us to become aware of our own humanity.  I suppose I just came across THIS post because it is something that is really in focus for me, lately.  I just wrote a post talking about something you mentioned here; connecting. 

    It seems to me that all of the social networking tools (Twitter, Facebook etc.) can all be used in ways that help us form more connections and not distract us from other humans as ‘popular opinion’ seems to be harping upon.

    Thanks again, I’ve been really engaged with your posts, tweets and ideas.  I appreciate you being authentic and sharing your true self with us all.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Dr. Mike. It’s a pleasure to e-meet you! I think ultimately we choose whether technology helps us connect or drive us further apart. In my experience, social media has the power to change and make a significant difference in our lives. I know it has for me!

  • Gemma Weirs

    I’ve just found this article, and I know it’s an old one but it’s still very relevant in my eyes. 

    For a while I’ve been wondering about how I can be more authentic online. For example, I read what so-called “personal branding gurus” say about how to improve our personal brands, and a lot of it leaves me feeling uncomfortable. A lot of what they suggest feels fake, hyped-up, flashy and fearful. Some of what they say has merit, so I usually find myself being discerning when reading their material, but I often end up with questions in my mind. I often read marketing and social media advice, and quite a bit of it overlaps with personal branding, which as a newbie, has confused me somewhat.

    Your article feels like a blast of fresh air. I’ve printed it out so that I can make notes and come up with my own ways of being more authentic online in business. 

    Many thanks for writing this article. :)

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    You’re most welcome! I know what you mean about personal branding. The idea of shaping a persona around myself makes me quite uncomfortable. I’d far prefer to just be a person!

  • http://buddhafame.com/ Buddha Fame

    Good articles always find a way to bring visitors to it. Though this article is really an old one, I somehow found it. And, this article has provided me the exact answer for what I was drifting from pages to pages. Thank you for sharing your concept.

    Regards,
    Buddha Fame – An online Buddhist Magazine

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    You’re most welcome. I’m glad you found and enjoyed it! =)