Is social media losing its authenticity?
The lines between editorial content and advertising content are continuing to blur. A few years ago a company called PayPerPost had the blogosphere up in arms for creating a network of blogs that advertisers could pay for product reviews. They later changed their name to Izea and continued expanding into offering pay per tweet and other social media marketing options.
The controversy is heating up again with recent announcements from The Huffington Post to offer sponsored content, comments, and even Tweets alongside reader responses demonstrate this new development in the ongoing saga of social media monetization. Marketers can now pay for prime social real estate and, therefore, unprecedented prominence within an online conversation in ways that they couldn’t before.
Similarly this site, True/Slant, also announced a paid contributor model called Ad/Slant, which is exactly how we obtained this blog I’m writing on now. Admittedly, injecting paid sponsorships into the seemingly organic channels of social media did make us pause at first. We had to ask ourselves: Will such monetization corrupt the purity of the online conversation? Will it interrupt and undermine the authenticity of the social stream?
Because social media is still relatively new and not yet philosophically digested, we approach it with a naive innocence, as if, in the absence of well-established norms and laws to govern our online behavior, socially generated content is somehow magically untainted by corporate interests or the agendas of big money. Rousseau’s famously romanticized noble savage, that pure and untainted being who, absent the corrupting influence of civilization, is naturally free and happy and supremely virtuous, is an appropriate metaphor.
Our naivete is fed by a powerful authenticity narrative that is pervasive in our internet culture, one deeply intertwined with our understanding of privacy, innocence, purity, and the individual in relation to (or more often pitted against) society. This narrative states that authenticity is an internal trait, the deepest and truest nature of the self that must be continually asserted, uncompromisingly true to itself, and fiercely protected from the corrupting influence of our decadent culture. It reminds me of a few art students I used to know who shunned art history for fear that their art would be tainted and less authentic if they studied other artists, as if their talent could only be diminished, not enhanced, by the context of networks.
What if, instead, we think of authenticity as something that emerges and flourishes within the context of networks instead of in opposition to them? Suddenly the emphasis is on relationships and connections, not individuals. It’s an uncomfortable thought for die-hard individualists, but as society becomes more and more connected, as we share more and more of ourselves on the social web, we need a way to relate effectively with one another. Relating authentically, which I will begin to define as relating openly, honestly, in a way that upholds the dignity of all parties involved and without a hidden agenda (note that I did not say without an agenda), seems like a good place to start.
So where does sponsored social media content fit into all this? The monetization of conversation, online or offline, is nothing new. Self-interest and profit have long been present in the social stream, influencing conversations with and without disclosure. In fact, I’d argue that paying for influence through well-marked content, comments, and Tweets is actually one of the more authentic ways of doing so, because at least you know who you’re dealing with.
Of course these posts will sometimes be disingenuous. Of course people will try to spin the conversation. This happens with or without paid sponsorships. It’s still important to think critically about the content you read. But if a company or a person with interests and an agenda has something to share with me, I’d much rather see it openly, in a spirit of genuine engagement, than in a clandestine Tweet or comment.
This is not corruption. In terms of innocence lost, it’s more like learning Santa Claus isn’t real. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle, so to speak, and nor would you want to. Connectedness is not going away, and neither will sponsored content. The best we can do is uphold our authenticity in the midst of it. And don’t feel bad if you occasionally yearn for some imagined good ol’ days of social media, before things got corrupted by [insert corrupting influence here]. Nostalgia is, after all, a very powerful coping mechanism.