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A Soliloquy: The Language of Social Media

© Tyler E Nixon (This is a striking photograph)

While I was traveling in NY for InternetWeek and DC for the Vocus conference recently, Mark Olson sent a note inviting my thoughts on a post he was authoring on the subject of authenticity versus authority. I immediately replied, “I’m in.”

This is a subject that is garnering much of my attention and contemplation as they are among the key words that orbit the social media marketing universe and are in danger of spinning off course and into a black hole of obscurity.

We stand at a crossroads where the language of social media either matures and develops or depreciates and decays.

In his post, “Authenticity vs. Authority,” Olson featured an industry-leading ensemble of leading minds and voices in the new media marketing landscape including, Seth Godin, Chris Brogan, David Meerman Scott, Mike Volpe and yours truly.

Seth Godin, author of ten international bestsellers including Tribes:

“If it’s a word game, then authority wins, because authority is about the perception of the consumer.  If they believe you an authority, you are.  In the long run, of course, authenticity will trump it, because your authority fades without it. The converse is not true.  And yes, it’s a word game.”

David Meerman Scott, bestselling author of the New Rules of Marketing & PR:

I remember in college there was a professor who had tons of authority. He was tenured, had written books, and was the head of the department. Although he had authority, he was not a popular teacher and his classes were empty. I recall other teachers who were young and dynamic and had no authority. Barely older than the students, they had an authentic love of their subject and of teaching. Their classes were packed. In the always on, one-click-away world of the Web, authenticity wins every time because unlike a college class, people can immediately leave the sites that don’t capture their interest. That’s why a lone blogger can be more popular than a stuffy old trade journal both on the same subject.

Chris Brogan, President of New Marketing Labs:

Authenticity and Authority in the Age of Trust
From around 1950 until maybe as late as 2006, organizations have been able to get away with mass communication and one-sided blurting. No longer. We are ALL the media. We all have networks. We all have cameras and video and newspapers at our disposal. We have the memory of Google on our side. How do companies succeed in this environment? They do what probably should have always been done: be human. It’s not a vast reworking. It’s not throwing out all that’s come before. It’s doing what we know in our guts to be right. How do you build authority? By being human. Be fallible. Be apologetic. And communicate in both directions. Listen, and build trust by responding and interacting. You’re still the leader, but you’re now a responsible leader who cares about your constituency. Try it. You’ll like it.

Mike Volpe, VP of Inbound Marketing at HubSpot:

I think authority and authenticity are related but different. Authority is a measure of importance, impact or influence.  You can measure authority by your ranking in Google and tools like Twitter Grader or Facebook Grader.  Marketers should work to improve their authority in their market – today’s marketing goal is to turn your own web presence (website, blog, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.) to the leading authoritative source for your market. The overall numbers don’t matter as much as the relative authority of your company vs. your competitors’ authority.

Authenticity is a measure of openness and lack of “marketing speak”.  One way to measure authenticity is to run some of your content through Gobbledygook Grader and see how much corporate-speak you use.  As the web has moved our society to more of a two way communication and given everyone more control over content, outbound marketing and advertising has become less effective. Marketers are embracing inbound marketing, which is more interactive and authentic by nature. I think most people will find that it is hard to achive a high level of authority without being authentic. However, being really authentic does not get you much without authority.

Marketers need to be authentic, but the primary focus for marketing should be on building authority. Authority is a marketing asset – you can use it to drive more people to your events, content, thought leadership, and products.  Authority is far more important to driving leads and sales, which is what we marketers should care about most.  Building an authoritative presence on the web is part of inbound marketing. You can use your blog, website and social media presence to attract more customers to you, and this effect is stronger as your authority grows.

Brian Solis, PR 2.0, author of the recently-released book, Putting the Public Back in Public Relations:

“How are you doing?”
“I’m fine. How are you?”
“I’m fine. Thank you for asking.”

What started out as an authentic gesture to understand how someone was feeling eventually dissipated into an almost meaningless exchange to ease into a conversation or simply acknowledge someone’s presence. Authenticity is the minimum requirement in any exchange, online and in the real world. Authority however, is earned with every exchange where those involved are enlightened as a result of their participation.

Relevant information, consistency, and insight are the attributes of those who build credibility among their peers. The transparency that facilitates genuine and sincere interaction helps us build meaningful relationships with those who value each other’s contribution. It’s how we earn trust, loyalty and establish significance.  Perhaps what we learn is that it’s not a case of authenticity vs. authority, but authenticity + wisdom + engagement = authority.

Framing authenticity and authority in opposing positions insinuates resistance or competition when they are in fact, interrelated and entwined.

But nowadays, authenticity and authority join the likes of other social media buzzwords that serve as anthems for the social communications revolution  including but not limited to, “transparency,” “engagement,” “conversation,” “human,” “listening,” and “relationships.”

The essence and usefulness of each important and distinct word is slowly migrating into a hollow of obsolesce as we attach them to all things social media, without truly stopping to reflect and observe their intent, definition, weight, and opportunity.

Before we veer astray, it’s now imperative to associate these words with sincerity, purpose and action. It’s not just a matter of Authenticity vs. Authority nor is it a race to listen and forge relationships by engaging through transparency, it’s about transcending the ideas behind the words into something of significance, trustworthiness, education, and remembrance. In the end, we are defined by our actions, not words.

By way of stated illustration, what if we embraced:

Believability vs. Transparency

Contribution vs. Engagement

Participation vs. Conversation

Hearing vs. Listening

Connections and Collaboration vs. Relationships

Humanizing vs. Being Human

Suddenly there’s a deeper resonance and significance associated with each word, almost as if each sung individual instruction, direction and motivation – sparking imagination and ingenuity in the process.  It’s education through inspiration…

Authenticity + Wisdom + Reinforcement through Participation = Authority.

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25 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “A Soliloquy: The Language of Social Media”

  1. susan kuhn frost says:

    This is very interesting. Authenticity is an increasingly important component of authority. We each start from our current position in our sphere — established market leader, unknown blogger, thriving concern or struggling one, bricks and mortar or online….and if we are smart we apply this, think about this, and take risks to be this, on a daily basis.

  2. jmacofearth says:

    Love the post, but it ain’t a soliloquy. Unless you a whole bunch of peeps.

    soliloquy: def – a dramatic monologue that represents a series of unspoken reflections


  3. brian says:

    @macofearth…in your definition, I think we qualify b/c of the inclusion of five cast members.

    FWIW, I went with this one though…an act of speaking one’s thoughts aloud when by oneself or regardless of any hearers. Or, a part of a play involving such an act.

    Stay tuned for the next part…

  4. Mark L. Olson says:

    Brian, thanks for the follow on commentary and for your participation in the original post. I’ve gotten a lot of great comments – . Look forward to engaging you again.
    Mark O.

  5. StephenGiusti says:

    Lots of great info here. I especially liked Brian’s line:

    “Authenticity + Wisdom + Reinforcement through Participation = Authority.”

    As a newbie to the social media world people can rely on my posts to be authentic, and as my wisdom grows I will hopefully receive reinforcement through participation as I market myself to others, and through all this will come some authority. I think this is the best equation to achieve absolute authority; however there can be many levels of authority that do not stand the test of time and will eventually fall through the cracks of the ever changing social networking world.

  6. Leo Bottary says:

    Great post. Authority can be manufactured and is often a product of what you do; authenticity is about who you are. I agree with Seth Godin that authenticity trumps authority in the long run, but we should strive for both.

  7. Dave Allen says:

    Seth Godin begins his smart, short answer with “If it’s a word game…” as if planting a stake in the ground. He knows it is a word game and he suspects that we know it too. Brian, I like your list of new definitions but they are just words. You propose switching out new definitions such as ‘believability’ for ‘transparency’ where transparency is already perfect; transparency says it all without me owning it, whereas believability makes me think of the possibility of opaqueness.

    This search for ‘authenticity or ‘authority’ is an extension of television in my mind – who would we trust to read us the news? In the past it was always well spoken, handsome, gravelly-voiced white men. It is no coincidence that we view the web through the same lens, a rectangular screen, but it’s worth remembering that technology simply shortens the distance between us. As Marshall McLuhan has written “any history of technology is filled with unexpected reversal of form resulting from new advances.” Now we have the social web.

    Arguably what is being discussed in this [wrongly titled] ‘soliloquy’ is how web users are searching for the authoritive newsman of yesteryear amid a sea of millions of “wanna be” bloggers and celebrities – and yet they are all looking in the mirror! Everyone is a celebrity these days so, as Seth rightly says “authority is about the perception of the consumer…” The TV newsreader had no more authority than the next newsreader, it was the viewers’ perception that gave them rank.

    As a member of a famous UK post-punk band I started a music and mp3 blog three years ago and watched it build in unique viewers over the years to its current 150k + a month. I never had to try. I apparently was perceived as authentic and therefore I was “given” authority by my readers and peers. And yet I am more interested in finding the people who don’t read my blog – I’d like to know if they don’t think I’m an ‘authority’ or perhaps it’s simply that they don’t care for what I write about – there, are two distinctions worth mulling over.

    I am now Community Manager at Nemo http://nemoHQ where I spend a lot of time thinking about and researching the social web. I write posts and essays that are published on the Nemo blog and about one year ago wrote this one – ‘On Social Media, Blogs and Advertising’ in which I embrace nature over technology.

    The simple fact is that we are all technological beings, as I wrote – “Most people that take a position on social networking and advertising come at it from a technological point of view, as in “technology has created the means for everyone to be connected and to stay in touch.” I disagree with that statement because it removes nature from the game. It is entirely natural for humans to want to interact as often as possible as we are all social animals. Cities are no more artificial (technological) than the hives of bees. Therefore the Internet is as natural as a spider’s web. People who believe that technology is driving our interactions are missing the point – we ourselves are technological devices, invented by ancient bacterial communities as a means of genetic survival”

  8. Dave Allen says:

    Brian, in a world of brand perception I’m surprised to note that you never grabbed your Facebook vanity url!

  9. Kurt Daradics says:

    My sense is that there is a much better distinction to focus on than Authority vs. Authenticity, because I agree with Brian Solis that they are very much interrelated and entwined. May I suggest that we look at it from a different lens?

    First let’s make the distinction between authenticity and sincerity.

    We fake authenticity in order to hide in-authenticity. Sincerity is fake authenticity. Every in-authenticity has a payoff and a cost by the way.

    Authenticity = power, sincerity = struggle and effort

    When we’re authentic, we are transparent, and share how/where we were assholes, or how we cleaned and restored up a messy situation. This is scary for most folks, because we run the risk of ‘looking bad’ or ‘uncool’, but it’s truly amazing (and counter intuitive) as to just how gracious folks will be when you give them the chance.

    This translates perfectly to business. For example, brands like Seventh Generation have discovered that being authentic with their mistakes actually engenders more loyalty from their customers, because there is an authentic relationship that is happening. On a side note, what good is ‘looking good’ or ‘being cool’ if you life or business doesn’t work any better??

    Relationship = being able to say whatever is there.

    When authenticity is present, then folks tend to naturally put their defenses down, and this is very empowering and intimate for both parties; this is where relationship happens. Also, when authenticity shows up, then enrollment magically occurs (imagine that).

    On another post perhaps I should sketch out the distinction between enrollment and registration. Let me just say this, when enrollment is present, registration naturally falls in line. But if you try to register folks without enrollment being present then you’ll have an rescinded sale (or worse)almost every time.

    Integrity = being whole and complete. Keep you word!!!

    It’s all about honoring our word. Bottom line. When folks show up powerfully connected to their word then ‘miracles’ start to happen. How many talented and smart folks do you know that could optimize so much more in their lives if they just honored their word!?

    If we really want to advance this ‘conversation’ I would encourage anyone to get ruthlessly committed to the principals of honesty and integrity. Allow this to be our north star, because no matter what terrain we find ourselves, honoring integrity will always lead us in the right direction.

    So to sketch this into a simple foundation for relationships:
    1. Integrity: Honor your word as yourself
    2. Responsibility: Be the 100% cause in the matter of your life
    3. Generosity: Whatever you hold will diminish–give it away!

    How often are you there for the conversation that is happening now?


  10. Daniel Young says:

    Authority is objective and Authenticity is subjective.

    Social media may be driving cultural change within organisations but it can also provide a veneer of authenticity. Is giving the impression of authenticity actually authentic?

    All of these ‘concepts’ / ‘words’ have a role to play in communciation. We should not be looking to pitch one against the other but looking for depth, evidence, best practice and authenticity within, including within authencity itself.

    Authenticity is also tied to motivation. Do we have a consensus on motivation?

  11. param says:

    From my experience as a social media marketer I can safely say that it is not so much the case of authority vs. authenticity as it is the case of how authenticity of interactions can help build up authority of a company which ultimately is (or should be) the ultimate aim.

    Authenticity is built up by getting involved with your target audience, by giving value to them, by solving their problems, and by giving away information which they may not be seeking at that particular time but is important to them anyway.

    Once you as a representative of a particular company start solving the problems and start adding value, bingo your authority and by extension the company’s authority start to build up.

    This is the path i usually take but wasn’t really able to give a name to the process. Now thanks to you I have the whole process – “Authenticity + Wisdom + Reinforcement through Participation = Authority.”

    It has also given me one big talking point which I am going to raise with Dave Evans (author of the book Social Media Marketing: An hour a day) whose workshop I am going to attend this month in India. I am sure it will lead to some interesting discussions.

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  13. Lossless_comma says:

    It's not so much a question of 'versus' it's a question of context – and power.
    Authenticity appeals to youth because it is their currency. An average twenty five year old has little authority without the body of work, skill and expertise that the same person may have by 35 or 45. The power of a 25 year old is asserting the relevance of authenticity over authority – which is why students will favour the hip young teacher who loves his subject over the older authority figure.

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