(authenticity / shutterstock)

Social Media Didn’t Kill Authenticity: It Never Existed

I recently had the pleasure of attending Canada’s first Community Manager UNConference. Run by Tim McDonald, Director of Community at Huffington Post, it was full of thought-provoking discussion including one of particular interest: authenticity in social media. One that I want to bring to this stage for further debate.

Sam Fiorella, a well-established social media-ite and author of “Influence Marketing” led this discussion and according to Sam:

“Authenticity is the first casualty of the social media era.”

Sam framed this statement and our discussion with a story of customer dissatisfaction. One that occurred during his recent trip to a resort in Collingwood, ON. As anybody does these days, he took his dissatisfaction to Facebook, only to have his comment deleted. After further investigation, he found out that the deletion came from the desire to protect the property investors in the surrounding areas (the valuations are highly dependent on the public’s perception).

That makes sense. Kind of. But unfortunately for them, while they happen to have satisfied one group of stakeholders — investors, they have pissed off another — their customers.

So, Sam asks us all the following questions:

  • Can there be authenticity when opening the doors might hurt the brand?
  • Can there be authenticity when your fiduciary duty lies first with the business and not with the ideals of your industry?

As much as I am an advocate of social media, these questions are begging me to take a step back. This problem extends far beyond social.

In-authenticity extends far beyond social

Brands need to be authentic in everything they do. You don’t want the value of surrounding properties to decline? Well then stop sucking. This isn’t about whether we can hide it or play it in a friendly light. This is about you being in-authentic in your day to day business activities.

Social media is just a symptom. It is not the cause.

Has the power fallen more and more to the consumer? Yes. Is social media part of this? Of course. But it is not necessarily the catalyst. Consumers now have a greater view into what the company is doing from social. But their power to choose exists regardless. You must be accountable.

Social media didn’t birth the authenticity gene.

Sam offered us up another example — Guy Kawasaki shared his opinion in reply to a complaint about him tweeting during the recent Boston Marathon event. He was then bombarded. Sam’s question surfaces again: “can you really be authentic?”.

Now hold on a moment. Yes. Why is this even a question? Because Kawasaki got flack for a comment deemed unacceptable for your grandmother’s tea party? Who cares? If you don’t want to be in the limelight then don’t host the party.

It was here, in the discussion that we came to the golden nugget — that this must be based on culture. That we have all been taught what is “socially acceptable” to say and what isn’t. And since, after all, social media is a means for building social relationships, one would think we should stick to these norms. You know — like if your aunt asks you if she looks fat in her dress. You don’t exclaim “hell yes you do!” but instead say “I preferred the red one” (kudos to Stephanie Grayson, @critiques4geeks, for this example).

The group (including myself at the time) concludes that maybe authenticity means to speak in a socially acceptable manner. Not to be brutally honest and completely transparent, but to almost censor yourself so as not to offend or stir the pot.

Authenticity is rooted far deeper than culture

Ultimately, there are some fundamental flaws with guide to ‘authenticity’.

Firstly, why would you lie? Censoring or not telling the whole truth isn’t authentic at all. In fact, that’s called a “white lie”. I thought we all erased that from our tool kit in kindergarten.

Secondly, what are we so afraid of? To tell the truth? For others to be armed and waiting? If you lay your opinion out there and you’re genuinely authentic — staying true to yourself or your brand, people may — no make that people will — disagree. Not everyone is the same, thinks the same, or acts the same. Surely we know that by now. But if you only look to say what others will agree to, are you really being authentic?

Finally, why are we not accepting of each other’s differences in the first place? Perhaps we would all be less afraid of being authentic on social media if society in general was more accepting of differences. If the word “differences” didn’t carry a negative connotation, a shirking feeling, a desire to hide. If we didn’t have a primal need to be accepted.

I don’t think social media killed authenticity at all. I don’t think it ever existed. And until we can fundamentally change our deeply rooted desire for acceptance (good luck with that), authenticity in business and social media doesn’t even have a leg to stand on.

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