The New Internet Honesty

Instagram users are sharing their thoughts using #TBH—but are we more or less sincere online?

There I was, brainlessly scrolling through my Instagram feed one day, when I found myself looking at a glimpse of modern-day honesty.

It was this quick succession of videos that made me stop, little things posted by my cousin’s 12-year-old daughter and a friend one night, which she flags with the hashtag “#TBH”—Instagram-speak for “To Be Honest.”

They started the same: these two girls took a selfie together, with the caption “Like for #TBH”—as in, whoever hits the like button will get a video in return, in which these two will say something honest.

The videos all started the same as well: these girls—hair pulled back in ponytails, sitting on a bed surrounded by pillows and posters—peer into the camera, giggling as each video starts and then, when they talk, they always start with three words: “To be honest.”

"To be honest, I don't know you very well, but you're really pretty and you seem cool."

And then: "To be honest, I think you're really good at sports."

And: "To be honest, we've never really hung out but you seem super sweet."

There was nothing strange about them, really, and yet, I kept watching them, replaying the ones I’d already seen, refreshing to see if there were more. I felt like I was flipping through a virtual yearbook signatures of sorts, reading these entries directed at whoever liked the girls’ previous posts. But when I clicked the hashtag I saw there were over seven million other #TBH posts out there—and not all are so good-natured.

Some are bluntly sad: like the one where a blonde girl says to the camera “To be honest, we used to go to school together and we don’t really talk, and I think you hate me.” Others treat honesty like a dare: “You got a big ass forehead,” says one, “But for real, for real. You’re really pretty.”

I caught myself peppering my own sentences with it, and as soon as the words left my mouth, laughing suddenly, and then having to explain to raised eyebrows why the hell that was funny. Over the next few days, these videos kept popping up in my head when I’d notice those three words—to be honest—popping up in conversation, in Facebook comments, in text messages.

I started to wonder, if we all have to say we’re being honest, does that presuppose that everything else we’re saying is actually dishonest? In America, where honesty is cherished as a core value, is the meaning of honesty actually changing? Is honesty the new “literally”—which, by Merriam-Webster’s standards has shifted to mean “figuratively?”

No, says Jeffrey Hancock, a professor of communication and information science at Cornell University—we’re still honest. More honest than ever. He says that’s because of the Internet.

In his 2012 TEDx Talk, Hancock points to face-to-face communication, saying that’s the most common venue for dishonesty. Think of those awkward “does this shirt make me look fat” or “can you tell I have a huge zit” conversations.

“We’re actually bad at telling if someone is lying,” he told me over the phone last week. Hancock (who recently made headlines with a controversial study he helped conduct in which the timelines of Facebook users were quietly tweaked to see how it affected emotions) says online we have time to consider compassion.

“People lie more, typically, on the phone or face to face,” he said. But over text? Email? Social media? He says with that physical distance between us we’re more apt to be honest. And on platforms like Snapchat or Instagram, where people can be even more anonymous, comes even greater honesty.

“If I’m anonymous I can tell you what I really think,” Hancock says. Those platforms, where our communications disappear, signify an increased awareness that what you say online can be like a trail of breadcrumbs. And it can stick with you.

Hancock says these “To Be Honest” videos are a midpoint between face-to-face interaction and online anonymity. But even more, they speak to the evolution of what’s considered “oversharing.”

What’s OK online on social media “isn’t set in stone,” he says. It’s constantly in flux. “Some people might be like ‘this is oversharing, this is crazy.’ Other people might be like ‘well whatever, that’s what we do now.’ Both of those conversations come together.”

And this #TBH thing? He says that’s a direct reflection of that. “They’re a really salient place for those negotiations happening.” Hancock thinks there’s more to these #TBH videos than meets the eye: Right there on Instagram, kids like my cousin’s daughter are showing their desire for authenticity—to be real with their friends in a face-to-face manner, but in a way they can control.

Dan Ariely is a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University and the author of the The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty. And he couldn’t disagree more: “Personally that I think that the Internet has made people less honest, not more honest,” he says.

“The Internet is allowing people to say things with less social consequences,” he says. “Anonymity, I think, is allowing people to have less repercussions in how [they] express their ideas.” In some cases—say expressing dissatisfaction with a government regime or calling out injustices—that can be good. But Ariely says that creating distance between communicating something, and the results of that communication, makes it easier for people to lie. “I think the Internet is creating a world in which you don’t see the consequences of your dishonesty.” Think back to the “does this shirt make me look fat” question—online, if you say “yes” you don’t have to face the person’s reaction.

He points to illegal downloading, something he says is “easy, morally” because we don’t see the penalties we would if we shoplifted a DVD, snuck into a concert or ate breakfast at a Waffle House and left without paying the bill. On his website, he even blogged about his own book on honesty being illegal downloaded over 20,000 times.

But Ariely also thinks #TBH might actually be a bright spot in online communication, serving as confessionals—a venue where all the dishonesty of the Internet is lifted away.

Ariely says dishonesty in all its variations—from outright lies to even the slightest misrepresentations of who we are—have a way of burdening us. And he says that what we’re seeing here with #TBH might just be people wanting to cleanse themselves. That online, being honest is a way of expressing who we are.

But what about the kids actually making these videos? Is it hot in middle school hallways to be honest?

On a Saturday morning, I called up my cousin’s daughter. Her name is Mackenzie. She’s a kid who skateboards around her neighborhood and bakes cookies with her friends. She wants to be a veterinarian when she grows up. Or a pro basketball player. Or a clarinet player.

Mackenzie doesn’t have Facebook or Twitter, or her own phone yet. But she has Instagram, and makes videos on her parents’ iPads.

She calls Instagram is her “happy place,” and she’s obsessed with getting new likes on her posts. If she doesn’t get what she deems “enough,” she’ll take them down.

I ask her, what’s the deal with #TBH? She giggles. I feel old.

“I guess you just, like, you can put like a video saying ‘I’m bored’ or ‘we’re bored.’ ‘We’re bored, like for #TBH.’ And if they like [your post] you just post a video,” she says. “My good friends will like it and I’ll give them a #TBH. Some people I’m not really close to, they’ll like it too.”

For people she doesn’t know well, it’s hard to be honest. “You just say, like, ‘you’re pretty and you seem nice,’” she says.

Does that end up making you new friends?

“I think it’s just a thing. I don’t think it makes us better friends,” she says. “It might make us to talk more, but I don’t think better friends.”

There’s something, though, that irks her about this type of supposed online soul bearing: “Sometimes with #TBHs, I think people are just flat out lying. They will absolutely hate the person, but they’ll say all this nice stuff about them,” she says.

Yeah, I ask, doesn’t it seem like a lot of these #TBHs are actually kind of… not honest?

Yes. Yes, yes, yes, yesyesyes!” she exclaims. And she says something that makes me stop and realize that it’s not that honesty has changed. “[#TBH] is not completely honest. I probably wouldn’t say my honesty to some people,” she says. For 12-year-old Mackenzie, she seems to unknowingly grasp the age-old lesson: If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all. But, to be honest, not everybody online follows that same rule.