The Authenticity Paradox

If you are a representative of an organisation and you are participating in social media connections with your target audience, what is your ultimate goal? To sell? To convince? To change hearts and minds? Whatever the driver behind moving conversations online, sooner or later you’re going to realise that what might work in a traditional marketing context won’t necessarily reap you the rewards you seek in cyberland. Not without successfully navigating the authenticity paradox.

What does it mean to be authentic on social media? If you haven’t already done so, check out the about page for this blog. What have I done there? I’ve tried to connect to you as my audience – ‘See! I’m just like you!’ I’ve been self deprecating. I’ve hinted at what is to come, and baited you to disagree with me. You could analyse this quite cynically but it is also authentic. I am a student in this class. I wrote it all down before I took a step back and had a real think about why I wrote it that way, and what I was trying to achieve.

Sourced from Unsplash: Jonathan Simcoe

Blog writing and other forms of online engagement are about a lot more than ‘knowing your audience’. You have to ‘be your audience‘. You have to belong to the group to be authentic and without authenticity you’re just shouting in an empty room at yourself. That’s a lot of effort to put in to something for no payoff. And what happens when your potential target audience in real life spans multiple affinity groups on the internet? What happens when those groups are at odds?

Historians will look back and say that 2016/2017 was when people couldn’t convince themselves anymore that online news/behaviour/problems weren’t real. For all the fake news in the world, our online lives demonstrably impacted our real lives across the board. After the election of Trump in the United States, there was considerable backlash to his actions in his first week of office. This was not confined to the real world as social media exploded with chatter as well as grass-roots activism and protest. The President himself made exceptional use of social media to control and frame the debate of the entire election cycle. Real media and social media became the same thing. How the hell do businesses communicate with their audiences in this kind of world?

People on both sides of this political firestorm buy tampons. They buy SUVs. They go on holidays and they book flights. They eat ice creams and they jump queues. They listen to Nickleback and Brahms and Nicki Minaj.  So you’ve got a new album, or car, or sanitary product to launch and the Trump has just hit the fan. You can’t ignore it – you’ll seem disengaged from reality. You certainly can’t celebrate it, but can you actively oppose it either? Your product/service appeals to people on either side of the political divide. How can you authentically ‘be’ a member of each group? Should you even to try?

Sourced from Unsplash: Kayla Velasquez

Businesses paid million dollar sums for 2017 Super-bowl ad slots and they overwhelmingly took the moral high ground. But this was not necessarily a political choice. The majority of adverts were story-boarded and filmed months in advance of the election result. A good example is Budweiser – their advert seems accidentally politically poignant. Others were more obviously made in direct response to recent events, like AirB&B. Their product and market is built on sharing and human decency so perhaps their choice of direction was a little easier to make.

Advertising of any kind sells on human emotion. The strongest human emotions are fear and love. Fear sells newspapers. It can also sell:

  • cars (new incredible safety features!)
  • perfume (your flirty crush will reject you unless you smell exactly like Brittany Spears!)
  • toothpaste (your flirty crush will reject you unless your teeth smell exactly like Brittany Spears!) and
  • anti-germ-toilet-busting-goo-spray-of-essential-99.9%-cleanliness (what mum would let their child sit on a dirty loo? Certainly not you! BUY THE EXPENSIVE UNNECESSARY THING BEFORE YOU ARE JUDGED FOREVERMORE!),

However, fear doesn’t connect with people quite so well when real fears (deportation, healthcare revocation, job loss, incendiary bombs) already exists in their lives.  Fear tends works when it speaks to the imagination. Germs do exist – but the toilet probably won’t kill you. Immigration exists – but immigrants probably won’t kill you. (But what if they did! Arghhh! 😲 )

Positive human emotions can establish lasting connections without pushing negative outcomes like fear campaigning can. The Superbowl ads are predominantly heart-string-tug-a-thons. Any nascent political messages are likely just us – fallible and suggestible human beings – interpreting things within the new context of our current political life. But if this positivity sells so well, what in the hell drives the overwhelming negativity, hate speech, trolling and doxxing of people in social media? What do people get out of it?

So here comes the socio-analytical context. If Social Media is discussed solely in terms of the wonderful connection, collaboration and communication it facilitates between people whose sole motivation online is to be helpful (and this is the framework many of this courses early readings is hung upon) you will not make good decisions regarding how to interact with online communities.

Sourced from Super Hero Hype Forums

Real life is much more complex than that. You can not enter the online world and not pay attention to the meaning and context that only we as humans can give to such technology. Social Media is nothing more than algorithms, datasets and noise. We humans give it context and meaning. Being ‘in’ social media means being ‘in’ humanity. Authenticity here has very little to do with your business plan or your capital value and everything to do with human interaction – whether that’s our capacity for empathy and the drive to be helpful or the flipside, our capacity to devolve, simplify, label, divide and put-down.

So, being authentic is essential to successfully engaging in social media. But authenticity isn’t role playing at online communication. As an organisation, you MUST BE INVOLVED in the online community. You have to contribute and care about its people. It is as real as any other aspect of modern life. What happens online matters – both the good and the bad. Therefore, you have to spend a bit of time working out what drives the negative behaviours (trolling, doxing) just as much as what motivates the positive interactions (wiki collaborations, support forums) and you have to have a bit of a think about what drives negative outcomes from positive behaviour. For example, sharing well-meaning but ultimately baseless information like the ‘real’ trick to surviving earthquakes or heart attacks nonsense that people thoughtlessly share. There’s quite a lot more to navigating the digital world than plonking an advert onto Facebook.

So, yes – do social media if you are a business. But do it as a human first with all that entails, however messy and ‘non-businessy’ that might be.

If you enjoyed this ramble as much as I’ve not enjoyed writing it, (honestly – a week isn’t long enough for me to write cogently on a topic. I need a professional editor!) then join me for my next topic: “Socio technical theory or how we dreamed up new ways to hate each other online.” I intend to talk about affinity groups and the continuing evolution of social media. Although I might segway off into a rant about the pervasiveness (and pervyness) of trolls. Let’s find out!


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