au·then·tic (ô-thĕn’tĭk) adj.

  • worthy of acceptance or belief as conforming to or based on fact – paints an authentic picture of our society
  • conforming to an original so as to reproduce essential features
  • made or done the same way as an original
  • not false or imitation : real, actual
  • true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character

abridged definition from merriam webster

What does it mean to be real online? One of the biggest issues facing individuals and organisations in the new order that is social media (and web 2/3.0)  is the problem of being human, appearing real, having personality and authenticity. Add to this the fact that we all ‘lie’ in real life and the issue of this manifesting online. The question of authenticity is at the core of social media and one that causes much disagreement between old school media/marketing types and those who are attempting to engage more ‘deeply’ online with communities and customers. Whether it is about the integrity of your blogging, the energy of your tweeting or how your overall package of Flickr, YouTube, Facebook etc: this post addresses some of the philosophy and asks practical questions which will hopefully get you thinking about the true value of authenticity.

New Economy = Value in Social Networks = Trust = Being Authentic

In my jetlag haze of the last couple of days I remembered when I was one of only three new media producers in the BBC a decade ago and having a project meeting talking about the true nature of interactivity. The conversation moved onto identity on the web when I asked a fellow producer “Tom, do you really think all your personality comes through via text based services” he responded “of course, my personality is the same everywhere”. Of course I disagreed saying in principle the true self is unlikely to remain intact if it is distributed in different forms, especially without the physical (body, voice) which provide critical clues to authenticity. We never resolved the issue. To me non-verbal communication online means to really ‘engage’ one has to develop a range of new skills so nothing is lost in translation. This is why many people really come across as inauthentic online. Why?


Firstly in real life very few people have the skills to work out what is truly honest and authentic. Think about those endless cold, corporate meetings full of politics and lacking in humanity and spending most time spotting hidden agenda. What about the first time you meet someone who flatters and charms you, only later, after you develop a relationship you find they are accomplished manipulators. Finally the ‘networking’ events, standing around with drinks, easy smiles, firm handshakes, small talk, uneasy jokes – everyone chasing after commissions, promotion, the next big gig. We have all been there. The social in online social media means nothing is what it seems?

Secondly in real life we are all role playing. We wear a different hat at work from the one at home, from that with a friend or an enemy. Most say they don’t but they do. The biggest problem in the business world is about being yourself while ‘representing’ the company/product/service or being someone completely different. Mixing the two brings up a compromise persona, unable to engage meaningfully as you are playing a hybrid inauthentic. I looked at the nature of corporations trying to be people online in a post called Corporations in Social Virtual Worlds – Psychopaths or Welcome Friends? which gave specific tips on how to develop persona primarily in social virtual worlds pointing out the psychopathic nature of brands and corporations. To dig deeper into your own authenticity consider the following nine questions that may indicate inauthenticity.

Real life authenticity

  • Are you the same person at work as you are at home?
  • Are you the same with groups of friends as you are alone with your partner?
  • When you represent your ‘company’ does it feel real or an uncomfortable act?
  • Do alarm bells start ringing when a work related stranger is overtly flattering?

Online authenticity

  • Have you even commented anonymously because you felt in your own name you could not be really say what you wanted?
  • In large online group meet-ups do you have to become more or less forceful than in real life to be heard?
  • On your own blog do you feel like a plagarist or truly original – give real opinion or someone elses vs have your own wisdom?
  • Do you have several auto responders set, so those who link or follow you get a ‘standard’, impersonal message?
  • In the semi real time web 3.0 such as Twitter, are you able to be non-schizo, not have multiple personalities?

How did you do? Trying to be authentic is a real challenge and although endless wise cracks on twitter, pseudo intelligent blog posts (*cough*), caring forum contributions and thoughtful 3rd party blog comments may enamour you to others – it, I suggest, only results in a thin veneer which can be easily exposed as superficial? Most real communities for example are able to ‘sniff’ out inauthentic behaviour in ‘noobs’ and the strongest online communities are able to identify ‘types’ instantly using their ‘experience of the crowds’. This is not about glaring inauthenticity it is about the little things – being just a little too stiff, very selective in the company you are hanging with, brown nosing influencers, too much push and not enough listen etc:

Many think by being consistently obnoxious all the time will cut the mustard, well the same as it would in real life, you will lose friends quickly. Others constantly lurk and never engage nervously checking everything they write, fiddling with the phrasing then not saying anything of real substance, in fear of mis-representing themselves or their company. Others are comfortable in small talk, thinking being human is only humour or what they eat or consume across media. Many fall into the trap of trying to develop status by filtering quality content, but then end up being no more than a forwarding machine and not showing any human side. Some are guarded and think their knowledge is special and not to be shared but in hiding it come across as selfish and self obsessed. Too many are overtly narcissistic.

This subtle ‘lack-of-truth’ online behaviour has endless flavours and I haven’t even delved into avatorial representation. We are still at the start of a long journey finding the best ways to communicate with each other effectively online. The majority of users still bring traditional values to it versus seeing the real potential of doing things a lot differently across the new services and mediums. Many destroy the subtlety and nuance emerging services with their bull-in-a-china-shop, old school modes of communication. Those who will evolve to be powerful forces and rise to the surface are those who know how to really express themselves, translate and come across as human. They say how they feel and express through words, voice & avatar their inner emotions and more and more do that in real time in shared experiences. The most authentic moments we have are those when we connect to others who are able to impart true feelings about product, services, events, life. The rest I would suggest is just cold, meaningless inauthenticity.