Zayn, Beware the Overshare

Singer Zayn is getting a ton of flack for saying that he no longer identifies as Muslim. Now, ordinarily my relationship with God – or anyone else’s for that matter – is not something I care to discuss. I rarely report on anything related to this kind of subject matter. I won’t even tweet out a story about anything religious in nature.

For me, it’s too intensely personal, and it should remain so. But this news struck a chord because I actually like a lot of the kid’s music, and when I read some of the responses to his revelation, snippets from an interview with British Vogue, they seemed terribly unfair. For instance:

“Zayn is routinely touted as Britain’s most famous Muslim. Does he count himself as especially religious? “To be honest, I’ve never spoken publicly about what my religious beliefs are. I’m not professed to be a Muslim.” Would he call himself a Muslim now? “No, I wouldn’t,” he says thoughtfully. “I believe whatever people’s religious beliefs are is between them and whoever or whatever they’re practising. For me, I have a spiritual belief of there is a god. Do I believe there’s a hell? No.”

The response has been radical, which isn’t unexpected. He was a member of One Direction. The only one to leave before the globally beloved boy band broke up. Some say he’s the reason it ended.

Reactions range from whole hearted support to exhortations that poor Zayn has just earned himself a ringside seat in hell. The comments, diverse as they are, are for me, annoying. The relentless itch of mosquito bites annoying. I’ve often wondered, were people always this judgmental, and technology just helped to make it more visible?

That must be it. In this context, technology doesn’t create what isn’t already there. But in an age when authenticity is all that separates many of us from drones and bots, and internet business is a more popular career choice for young people than almost anything outside the obligatory desire to rap or play some sport, it’s sad that people are so often punished for it.

Authenticity is important. It helps people relate to you, helps you to stand out in a noisy, competitive field where so many others may be doing the same thing you are. But it’s a sticky topic either way you look at it.

On one hand, you want to know when people are against something so that you can respond accordingly. On the other, when they reveal something that you don’t like, do you really have the right to tell them that how they feel is wrong?

There’s no solid, unequivocal yes or no. It just depends. The only codicil I’d offer is, if you aim to hurt someone, then no, I don’t think you have the right to say whatever you want. I think that’s the limit for free speech. Anything else, even things I don’t like or agree with, are at the speaker and listener’s discretion.

Based on that interview, Zayn wasn’t being disrespectful. His response seemed fairly thoughtful, a clarification more than a statement meant to sway or influence one way or another. Yet he’s being savaged. So, what to do?

Well, in the name of online authenticity, while I advocate it strongly, I also believe there are certain things you should absolutely keep to yourself. What is up to you. But here are a few simple, but heartfelt guidelines for those of us who make a living in the digital space.

In the name of authenticity you should:

Decide what you want to reveal in advance. If you don’t want to have to defend it later, don’t talk about it, ever. We live in a time when nothing is truly private. Nothing is ever truly deleted. Things you say and do now could affect you in 20 years, and things you did five years ago could affect you now. So, don’t be caught unprepared. Certainly don’t allow someone to trick you into giving an emotional response that you will regret later. Unless, of course, you’re willing to deal with what comes after you run off at the mouth – or the fingertips.

For instance, ask for interview questions in advance. Know whether or not you’ll have to opportunity to review content pre-publication. Often you won’t, which makes preparation even more critical. If you run a business that depends on digital communication – and most businesses these days are at least affected by the Internet – you have to know who you are. What do you believe in? What’s important to you? What won’t you tolerate? How much are you willing to share and why? That’s why branding is important. Know the answers to questions like these before you get into a situation where an honest response could create a shit storm that you’re unprepared or unwilling to deal with.

Determine your stance. Controversy is a part of life. Someone once told me that my hair – something that grows out of my head without any help or say so from me – is political. He was right. Black hair can be extremely political, and controversial, as can almost any topic, especially one that defines a person in some definitive way. You have to know how you feel and what you believe before you can decide how much or how little is expedient for you to share with the public.

There’s levels to things. You have to be clear which side of a particular fence you fall on. It comes down to being prepared and wise enough to think before you speak or share. Just as you’re known by the company you keep, you will be known by what you say. Understand that people will slice and dice and package and publish pieces of what you offer as they like. Make sure your stance is firm and substantive and clear enough to weather a media storm or an unscrupulous media manipulation.

Guard your image. I’ve said it so many times before, and I’ll keep saying it until it’s no longer important. Guard your image. I had a call with a potential client this week who may hire me to create a digital content marketing strategy, and I talked about how important it is to shape, curate, and protect your digital footprint and assets. You have some control over your image. What you put out – social media, blogs, video, interviews – and what you allow others to put out about you, helps to create that image. Spend time with this. It’s worth it. Content is everything in digital business today.

Zayn may or may not have expected what he got after he shared his truth to British Vogue. I don’t know. I hope he spoke deliberately, in response to something. What is none of my business, but most people aren’t like me. They think everything is their business.

That’s sad. But that’s the world that we live in. Don’t let your image – or business – suffer because you forgot about practicality and reality in your quest for authenticity.

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