So much for authenticity


Authenticity, authenticity, authenticity.

That’s probably the most popular characteristic we prescribe for social web success, and by far the most mis-used, too — and I have an example to show you why.

I attended a social media conference last week filled with a star-studded cast of A-Listers.  I was eager to see them in action.

I learned a lot, but one of these super-hyped speakers really disappointed.  His presentation was profane, vulgar, and chauvinistic.  The content, which gave such tired advice like “be human” and “word of mouth marketing is powerful,” seemed to be just thrown together.  It was one of the worst presentations I’ve witnessed in my career.

By the body language of the people sitting around me, I sensed I was not alone in this sentiment. About a dozen people got up and left the room after the first 10 minutes.  I stayed to watch the train wreck.

Two interesting things happened next.

First, I checked the Twitter stream, thinking that this guy was about to be impaled by a sophisticated audience.  Here is a selection of tweets following his speech:

“XYZ rocked the room!  Wow. What a presentation!”

“XYZ just showed why he is at the top of his game. I am blown away.”

“I have seen XYZ speak several times and he keeps getting better and better.”

What???  Really???

Was anybody authentic?

I knew one of the people who Twitter-gushed over his presentation, and I asked her to explain her assessment. This is what she had to say:

“I didn’t really get anything out of the presentation, and yes, I can see that it was offensive.  But I was trying to support the conference organizers by tweeting positive things and hopefully getting the conference to trend. I guess I think that if you don’t have anything good to say, why say anything at all?”

The second observation was that there were no public Twitter complaints about the presentation. Not one. I found this mystifying but realized that I had not tweeted anything negative either.  I didn’t want to embarrass the hard-working conference organizers. I’m also very aware that I have a very engaged audience and when I tweet something it tends to reverberate, sometimes in unexpected ways.  So I do self-edit and try to set a positive tone.

I can imagine when this guy came off the stage and checked the Twitter stream he would conclude that he just gave the best speech of his life. And, in a way, I helped reinforce that, didn’t I?

So much for authenticity , huh?

What authenticity are we talking about here?

It got me thinking about the social dynamics at work. Here is a definition of authenticity:

The quality of being genuine or not corrupted from the original.

Now in this little episode, there was very little authenticity expressed through the sentiments on the social web.  I didn’t express my genuine thoughts.  My friend didn’t express her genuine thoughts.  I’m guessing many people in the room held their true sentiments in check.  Ironically the only authentic person in the whole scenario was the speaker, who was authentically ineffective.

So does social media authenticity really mean to be genuine … but only when the sentiment is positive?

I don’t think so. Here is another way to look at it. My friend and I WERE true to our principles and our public agendas.  The time wasn’t right to complain or disclose our true sentiments. It would be needlessly hurtful, at least in our judgments.

The “authentic persona?”

While authenticity means being true in every way, that is just an impossible standard and it’s not what people expect any way.  I am not going to come on this blog and say “I am farting constantly today” even though that might be congruent with my nature at that moment. Who needs to know that?

As individuals and brands, the best we can hope for is to be authentic personas, an ideal that we display for the world to see.  It’s not necessarily true.  It’s certainly not accurate.  But I believe it as close to “authentic” as we can hope for. Be yourself. Only a little better.

Be who you promise to be to your tribe, not necessarily who you are.

After hearing “authenticity” being drilled into your skull through 90% of the posts you see on the social web, this idea might seem like a shock. But it drives me crazy when I see people demand that we be authentic, when in fact, nobody is.  And that’s perfectly OK.


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