Friday, April 16, 2010

Digital Authenticity—Does Anyone Care?

Mark Schaefer, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, reposted a blog entry asking, "Can you outsource authenticity?" He writes:
To be successful on the social web, you need meaningful content … and LOTS of it! Some debate whether you need quality or quantity, but fact is, you need both. Five excellent blog posts in a month is better than one excellent blog post … and 10 is even better than five! And every company and non-profit is jumping on board. So where is all this quality content going to come from? [Emphasis mine.]
In other words, as long as the source is accurate, does it matter who produces it?

Mark was referring to corporate owners who want to blog and don't have the time to do so, and as a result were seeking ghostwriters. He asked whether it would bother people to know that content, allegedly coming from Person X, was really coming from Person Y, who may not be as widely known or recognized in terms of X's experience. I'm addressing this question because it relates to issues of digital authenticity, which I have often explored on this blog. And I think the answer is that it really depends on the information being distributed, and the reputation that is authored as a result.

Today's technology gives everyone the opportunity to be a writer and publisher—without much thought to background or training or expertise. However, if you're a regular poster on the web, your followers/readers want to know where the content is from, and get rather angry at misrepresentations. There is some understanding that one's web identity does not necessarily reflect one's real identity, but when your digital reputation suggests that you are a trustworthy source, readers don't respond well when they discover that they've been misled. This was the case with Park Dae-Sung—Korea's most influential economic pundit until the government shut him down. Park used the web to build a brand and a following under the pen name of Minerva, and while he never explicitly laid out his credentials, his readers developed certain expectations. When they felt those expectations were not met, the result was not favorable for Park.  When it was revealed that Park lacked the formal training to actually dispense the (accurate) advice he had been doling out, he was ostracized both online and offline. 

Similarly, Rafael Golb was arrested for assuming multiple online identities to promote a theory on the origin of the Dead Sea Scrolls—including the identity of someone who presented an opposing view on the origin of Dead Sea Scrolls. Golb's actions were viewed as fraud as he set out to intentionally deceive people about his identity in assuming the identities of other people. There are certainly differences between Golb and Park, however the common thread lies in the response to perceptions by the public concerning misrepresentation.

So yes, I think people do care about the authenticity of content on the web. And coming from an academic background, misrepresenting one's work or appropriating the work of someone else are grave sins. That being said, corporations certainly do use ghostwriters for their blogs and/or allow multiple posters—and I think that making this plain is important. What needs to be forefront of this discussion is the way reputations are crafted online, and what it may mean for both the ghostwriter and the executive if there is backlash over content. If it is explicit that there are multiple posters, or that the posts are "approved" by a certain individual, then I think perhaps the chances of controversy are small. Transparency is paramount. Whatever is posted under your name contributes to your digital footprint, and as the real world and virtual worlds increasingly overlap it's no longer possible to easily separate one from the other. The messages need to be consistent, and there are ramifications if they aren't. What will it mean for the executive to admit that all along someone else has been producing the content representative of the company? How does that reflect on the corporate mission that the organization has been building?

It may not matter, but then again it might. As web users come to better understand how to gauge quality content, perhaps we will have a better sense of what it means to be digitally authentic.

Inviting thoughts and comments below, as always.


  1. talking about ghost writers. one of the philippines' top tycoons got caught red-handed for reading oprah's work in a graduation ceremony.

  2. Thanks for sharing this link, Bonn. It really exemplifies the point that there are repercussions for misrepresentation when it is uncovered. While we are still finding our way on the web, it's definitely important to remember that our web presence is a part of the reputation that we are crafting for ourselves, and misstep in the virtual world could have an impact in the real one.

    In this instance, it seems he may get a pass. But how difficult would it have been for him to simply say, "As Oprah aptly said ..." or "In the words of JK Rowling ..." There's no shame in citing a well-spoken phrase.

  3. I think people get caught in a wind tunnel of "transparency" and "authenticity" when they really want and expect "honesty." This is an important distinction.

    If President Obama reads a speech composed by his staff, are these his authentic words? No. Are they his honest words? Yes.

    I think people may say they want authenticity when they really expect honesty and that can certainly be delivered in an environment of ghost-blogging.

    Thanks for picking up the discussion. You're a wonderful thinker and writer and I love engaging with you!

  4. Hey Mark. Agreed. But we know Obama has speech writers - and that he's involved in the speeches he delivers. My issue is handing over complete control or using the words/work of someone else without giving thought to how that might affect your brand/reputation. I think you're right that authenticity and honesty are used interchangeably, but being honest that your work is assisted by a ghost writer is not the same as producing content that is authentic to your goals and intentions. Though if you are honest about the ghostwriting, I see little or no reason for it to be controversial. Knowing that an executive was "approving" ghost written posts wouldn't necessarily turn me off (unless the writing was truly bad), but I'd be less inclined to engage in the same way as I might if I knew he were posting.

    Attitudes may change as the web matures, so we'll see.

    And as always, thanks for stopping by.