Tweeting with authenticity: genuine or strategic?

A rather new friend of mine recently launched a blog. I checked it out the other day and she had posted on authenticity. In the post she raised a point that would resonate with most of us (or so I hope): that we feel more connected to authentic people.

I asked her, and we have yet to discuss, whether this was a matter of feeling or a matter of fact. In other words does the “authentic” person have to reciprocate? Feel connected to us, in return? Or demonstrate and act on their authenticity in any way?

Or is it a matter of appearance, impression, and vibe?

You probably know where I’m going with this. It may be easier to impress authenticity on a person online. Impressions we make and take of people we don’t know online can be far from the mark. Impressions are twice as likely to be off:

  • The impression we make of a user reflects our own interpretations
  • The other person’s expression is not fully captured when it’s online

In other words, the other person expresses less fully, and we fill in more. The impression we have of the other person, and their appearance to us, are informed more by our interpretations than by their intentions and expressions.

So is authenticity online something that we project onto the other person? Is it something that even if they intend, they can’t fully express? Is a connection formed online a matter more of a connection we imagine and attach, and invest in — or is it still a reality created by our communications and interactions with each other?

Regardless of how you feel about authenticity (we prefer it) and feeling connected (ok, some of the feeling is projected, but authenticity does seem to secure connections), there’s no denying that it can be faked.

Since fake authenticity is a contradiction in terms, we need to distinguish between intention and appearance. Sincere intentions can appear insincere, and vice versa.

So if you’re a brand using twitter, and you wish to reach your customers authentically and sincerely, how would you do it? How would you show it?

  • Would you emphasize your actions — make sure that you’re being real and genuine in what you say, share, and do?
  • Or would you consider how you appear, and instead create a sense of authenticity strategically and tactically — recognizing that it’s not ultimately in your hands and the other user’s impression of you matters more than how genuine your feelings are?

I’m not just splitting hairs here. The people who post for brands that use twitter are real people. Every day they must choose to tweet as themselves, personally, and genuinely — or post inauthentically and insincerely. In communication theory, this has been described as the difference between understanding and effect. Authenticity contributes to a shared understanding; strategy merely has to produce results; communication being simply effective.

As much as we want to see authenticity win, there’s no logical reason why a brand wouldn’t choose to communicate disingenuously, and for effect. Realizing that the “customer is always right,” and that it’s really the (other) user who makes the impression, strategies might be better if they are designed for effect. It is contrary in spirit to “conversational media,” but it’s more consistent with advertising/marketing. Seduction, deception, appeals to price, value, image, quality… impressions of brands need content!

The argument against this of course is built on time and repetition. None of us is fooled, over time, by the disingenuous behavior of a brand acting according to strategy and plan. Over time, and through ongoing or recurring interactions, we augment our impressions with experience. Trust grows. And with it, the risk of damage to the relationship.

The reason for authenticity then it not strictly in the impression you make, or in how you appear. Authenticity begins as an appearance but becomes experience over time. Brands that intend to keep using twitter, for example, might choose to communicate with greater effect now, frequently, with new followers — or instead sustain relationships over time (at higher cost perhaps).

The former can be achieved with effective communication — the latter demands consistent and genuine communication. Or so it would seem.

Riffed and inspired by a post on Lizasperling.com.

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  • http://twitter.com/tamadear Tamsen McMahon (@tamadear)

    “None of us is fooled, over time, by the disingenuous behavior of a brand acting according to strategy and plan. Over time, and through ongoing or recurring interactions, we augment our impressions with experience.”

    This set of points made me curious: How is it that we recognize authenticity, or the lack thereof? My suspicion is that the answer lies in the “strategy and plan” bit–human beings are, at heart, somewhat random. There is no pattern, no plan, no system that can fully and accurately mimic the inherent randomness that makes us who we are.

    When a company strategically and planfully tweets themselves as authentic, then, are they not–by definition–being inauthentic?

  • http://www.gravity7.com/blog/media/ gravity7

    Tamsen,

    It's said that sincerity is the one expression that cannot be stated explicitly. You have a point there! But of course a brand using an authentic approach to engagement would simply act and communicate authentically, and (I'm supposing) refrain from stating its intentions to do so. Most of us, I think, recognize the cheese factor in explicitly claiming authenticity.

    On the point of randomness — I don't know that we're random. I rather think we tend to make meaning out of noise if necessary. Some argue that the mind cannot handle random, that the mind is built around pattern making derived from pattern recognition. But that's a cognitive approach, and I tend towards the psychological — which also prefers meaning over randomness.

    That said there's certainly ambiguity and arbitrariness, particularly in communication. Here I think we're as likely to “fail” in communication as we are to reach agreement. But it's those little failures that often contribute to ongoing interaction.

    My point was that a brand may see value in one-off strategic use of conversational media, but at the expense of the trust and loyalty that come only with time.

    cheers!
    a

  • http://www.lizasperling.com/ LizaSperling

    My goal in writing Artificial Authenticity: use a story to start a conversation about what we deem authentic and why. You took the bait, and you took it to a new level – fantastic. FYI – I did not answer your questions because I could not respond in 140 char AND (primary reason) I had to put some more thought into it myself. Now that the ball is rolling, & I have more to chew on. Thank you.

    I sure wish I were as quick with answers in the blogosphere as I am on Twitter and IRL, but for now, it takes me some time to grapple with these questions. Let's talk about it more IRL.

  • http://twitter.com/tamadear Tamsen McMahon (@tamadear)

    I completely agree there is a tradeoff between one-off strategic use and trust and loyalty over time, so forgive me if my response didn't include the fact that I understood and agreed!

    Perhaps “random” isn't the right word for what I was going for, though “irrational” might be. It's hard to fake the occasional irrational, emotion-driven action that comes with authenticity. I think we have an innate detector of things that are too planned, too engineered, too slick.

  • http://www.gravity7.com/blog/media/ gravity7

    bang on — we are irrational — although in ways that often make sense, with hindsight, or insight. Sometimes our irrationality can seem rational — as when markets are subject to a crowd psychology (think bubbles, tulips, or subprime!) that appears rational but is later revealed to be systemically irrational (counter-productive).

    But a brand could pull off this behavior strategically. The entertainment industry fools us all the time — some of us enjoy being fooled and accept the bargain wittingly. Reality tv shows aren't real, and without the editing work required to make them interesting they'd be ridiculous. I think we accept the production of realities staged to seem real, and there's no logical reason that won't play out in conversational media. I'm not in favor of it, but there have been and will be scams involving fake accounts, ghost-written posts, and much more…. Over time many but not all will be caught…

  • http://www.gravity7.com/blog/media/ gravity7

    The bit I left out, and which would be interesting to discuss, is the role played by the public, or sense and presence of the public. How we are privately is not how we are publicly. Authenticity becomes a more complicated matter when we have to include the performative dimensions of talking in public — twitter has a public, and each of us has a different sense of that public's interest, attention, and awareness of us, of the person we might be addressing, and of itself.

    Some, or many, write for effect — perhaps not even conscious of it. The simple test being: would I have written that, or written that way, if I had no followers? What would I have written if that had been an email, or an IM? Is one less authentic if one's writing addresses the public indirectly? If it intends to make or leave an impression?

    I suspect that the matter of authenticity ultimately leads to a discussion of performance. Our communication platforms are a stage…

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