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The false promise of Web 2.0 transparency and openness has given the impression to brands that it will help them learn more about their customers and fans from their social profiles. On the contrary, social is where we obscure ourselves the most.

One of the benefits of social media has been not just the opportunity of greater and richer ways to communicate and share information with our friends, family and secret crushes, but also to learn more about them.   

Social media evangelists have been particularly effusive about how Web 2.0 hasn't just made us 'accessible' and 'collaborative' but also 'authentic' and 'transparent' too.

Social media platforms are the digital canvas where users can set up shop and create an online home which is fashioned and populated with their unique tastes and inclinations.

This transparency is seen by marketers as a goldmine for customer insight. If they can understand what makes you tick then they will be able to make their marketing messages more relevant, more effective and, in turn, increase sales.

Brands have all sorts of ways of trying to understand who you are through your social profile - whether it by getting you to authenticate your social profile when signing-in or registering to use a service to 'monitoring' what you're saying publicly on services such as Twitter.

This seems like a foolproof idea; however, more savvy marketers are beginning to wise up to the fact that far from revealing the 'real you', our social profiles are prone to higher levels of obfuscation and misinformation than we'd care to admit.

The 2010 documentary hit Catfish charted the exploits of a young American who struck up a Facebook relationship with a young woman named "Megan", who later turned out to be a lonely, mature housebound woman called Angela who had manufactured several social identities to lure him.

Deception in the social web doesn't have to be as elaborate or acute as that, but the general point still stands – our actions on social media are merely a contrived image that we want to portray of ourselves, not the real 'us'. Or, as Jeremy Garner describes it: "A curated self".

A survey earlier this year by OnePoll revealed1 in 4 women lie about their lives on social media to ensure they don't appear "boring". The most common lies include lifestyle posts, i.e. going out when you're actually at home scarfing down a pint of ice cream, lying about vacations, jobs etc. One in five women lie about their relationship status.

Commenting on the study, British consultant and psychologist Dr. Michael Sinclair said:

"We work very hard presenting ourselves to the world online, pretending and attempting to be happy all the time which is exhausting and ultimately unfulfilling... Omitting the less desirable imperfections of our lives from the conversations with our 'friends' online leads to less opportunity to feel empathized with, resulting in a greater sense of disconnection from others."

Men, who were more likely to lie on Twitter than Facebook, were also found to be twice as likely as women to want to impress their workplace colleagues (22 per cent compared to 8 per cent).

For marketers trying to get an accurate picture of their brand community and audience – to communicate in a more relevant and, ultimately, profitable manner – the panacea of using social media data for customer insight is actually more a case of 'seeing through the glass, darkly'.

So, where then can brands go for a more truthful and more useful reflection of the customer?

Author Walter Mosley once said, "A man's bookcase will tell you everything you'll ever need to know about him", and it with this in mind that brands are starting to see the value of understanding what customers are reading and engaging with online. By tracking consumer interactions as they browse and engage with content, brands can begin to reveal current and evolving interests, inclinations and needs — sometimes before the individual knows themselves!

Think about your daily browsing habits: the stuff you read online is highly indicative of your current interests and needs. By contrast, Facebook Likes denote a historic interest (sure, I 'like'-d the 'Jackass: The Movie' Facebook page in 2006 but I haven't watched that film in seven years now).

If marketers want to learn more about their audience – and accurately – it won't be through gleaning insight from audience's social profiles, but instead beginning to learn from what people are reading online.

Rather than 'you are what you tweet', it turns out: 'you are what you read'.

By Jonny Rose. Jonny Rose is product evangelist for idio.

This content is brought to you by Jugglit, sponsors of the digital entertainment series.
 

Photograph: Nick Daly/Getty Images
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