The whole “individual” vs. just part of a “dividual” in social media branding

On a recent internet exploration about Heidegger, I came across the fascinating blog Philosophy for Change by Dr Tim Raynor.   Authenticity and social media, as well as the impact of technology, are all topics Tim covers in his blog. In one of the comment strings from his entry on Gift Economies and Gift Culture, Tim proposes that certain types of social media encourage people to participate as whole individuals (Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn for example), in essence a copy of the whole person we are offline. Other services, such as Twitter,  allow people to participate as “dividuals”:

“Facebook is set up to enable us to reconstitute our personal identity online. For this reason, I find it limiting, almost stifling, in that I feel I am compelled by the system to act out a ‘real world’ identity that has no place or real purchase in the virtual medium. Twitter I find more satisfying, since it leaves open the question of identity. One can perform one’s familiar identity or try to articulate a persona-in-the-process-of-becoming. One can choose anonymity or one can act out a fantasy…

“I would suggest that we participate on Twitter as ‘dividuals’ – ‘part persons’, if you like. The interesting thing is that people seem to select that part of their person that has the greatest value and meaning for them. If a person is a set of vectors directed toward the future, Twitter enables us to single out the leading vectors and develop them in isolation from the others.”

Take Aways
One indisputable take away is the development of the “dividual” concept. Although this concept is a side note in a larger conversation about the self online, it is undeniable. Mechanisms like Twitter allow us to develop a specific part of ourselves and only that part: Twitter’s brevity and anonymity (if desired) encourages dividuation, not individuation.

However, Google+, LinkedIn and Facebook have, as an underlying vision, that people who join do so with genuine identities. There are several ways they ensure this. First, it is easier to find someone and link to them if they use verifiable information: name, age, location, schools attended, employment and so on. Secondly, they regularly look fo signs that the user is not a genuine person and attempt to rid their service of those “imitation people” inasmuch as they can do so. Their (advertising) business model is more viable if everyone on Facebook equals a genuine person in the offline world, and if the details about their identity are disclosed accurately. Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn want individuals, not dividuals. Twitter, on the other hand, does not care. You can have several feeds set up, and be tweeting and retweeting about each of those individual interests simultaneously.

The individual, the branded individual and the individual brand
Previous posts on this blog have addressed the positive bias in individual Facebook engagement. In other words, when people put up positive posts they receive more response, engagement and affirmation from their social media audience than if they post neutral or negative posts.

This positive bias puts me in mind of the cultural norm of acting like you are happy at a party, even if you are, at that moment, not particularly happy. As someone told me once, “Misery loves company, but company hates misery.”

This pressure to be happy, self-fulfilled and becoming the best version of ourselves is one that has been argued as being a first world problem.  This pressure, or social anxiety, is one that has been the discussion of philosophers, and psychologists for decades. Marketers have been leveraging this kind of anxiety–and still do– to sell everything from weight loss programs to consumer goods to, well, participation on social media networks.

People who use social media as a personal branding exercise are seeking affirmation, engagement, and association–and therefore must bow to the social pressures within their networks to act in a way that will allow them to develop their optimal networked audience. That usually means coming across as happy, self-fulfilled, expert and may even extend to looking a particular way in their photos.

Brands who use social media to extend their customer engagement or sell online also seek to optimise their audience reach.  They default to positive bias (very few businesses can get away with being rude or grumpy to customers). Their workers are engaged in emotional labour, especially those at the front line who engage with customers. This develops a kind of organisation-wide, or maybe even industry-wide, social pressure felt by the individuals within a firm to both their customers and non-customers.

One of the interesting ways this is playing out at the moment is in an industry not known for its friendliness: academia. Social media has let loose the ability to gripe and explore the various ways in which the academic system does not lead to happiness. So much so that the new Academic Kindness blog stands out in stark relief to other, more popular posts about academic life. Interestingly, as higher education websites become even more marketing savvy and attempt to push their media presences  toward a positive bias, there is a discourse in the industry about how unhappy people in the field are. Government funding is harder to access, budgets are cut, fees go up, jobs are insecure and employment outcomes for students seem more out of reach. The disgruntled online presences are “dividual” accounts of university life, as much as the packaged, slick, positive university marketing materials are also “dividual” accounts of university life. There is an element of authenticity, and inauthenticity, in each.

Existential Authenticity
One approach to this problem would be to engage in a narrative about the problem itself, letting the outside world into the internal struggle about how much to disclose and the approach toward social media anxiety. In a  study discussed in an earlier blog post on this site, a blogger engaging in a seeded blog promotion activity actively discusses the ethical issues involved in accepting the product and blogging about it with his audience.

By doing this, he is letting people in on his inner world and how it manifests in his outer world. Should he accept the product? (He ends of doing so). Does that mean he has to blog positively about it (He ends up giving what he feels is a balanced perspective.) Is he flattered by the attention he is getting from the commercial company, who recognises his audience reach (He is.) Is he open to receiving more free stuff? (He is.) and so on.

He steps this out in a series of conversations with himself in his blog and conversation with others recorded on to his blog about the issues. All of this is done in the same voice and tone as in the rest of the blog. He is letting us into his world in an existential self. Heidegger would approve (I think).

If brands seek to engage in authentic behaviours, they will have to act less like brands and more like people. Although this has been attempted, and at times successfully, it is counterintuitive in the marketing world and comes at a cost: transparency may mean less “likes” and less “friends”: both metrics that online marketing managers hold dear.

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Millennials want (and don’t want) authenticity on Social Media

In the northern spring of this year, Linnaeus University Masters students Guia Tina Bertoncini and Maria Teresa Schmaltz published their study on the millennial generation and their perceptions on social media through various lenses.

The Take Aways
Called “What’s on your mind?”, the study included a survey  sample size of 264 people who claimed to be between the age of 18-31 in 2013, putting them solidly in the millennial generation. Ninety-nine percent of respondents indicated they had a prsence on Facebook. Respondents came from 85 universities in 37 countries. Although there were a variety of questions in this, here are the graphs relating to my favourites:

social-media-authenticity

A majority of the respondents indicated they felt that social media increases the chance to represent a distorted self-image to others. At the same time a majority of respondents indicate they represent “nothing but my authentic self” on social media.

A majority of respondents also indicated that they put both positive and negative aspects of of the “real me” forward to others (generally); which is interesting, as research has shown–especially on social media–that people tend to display more positive versions of themselves on social media, as this “positive bias” is what generates the most positive response from an online audience.

Although the survey sample and analysis is limited, it is interesting how the individuals in this survey perceive social media presences to be likely to be distorting for others, but not themselves.

The conclusion the authors come to is that “…it is questionable…whether millennials are aware that social media revolution is not only altering our minds by influencing our brains and behaviors but directly the way in which we young individuals develop our sense of self-esteem and identity (p.87).”

This is an issue not exclusive to the millennial generation; the experiences we have, and the expectations of others, do distort the way we see ourselves and others.

Existential and Constructive Authenticity
Whether the perception that we are more authentic than others can be attributed to the Actor-Observer effect or the Hawthorne Effect (or both); the fact is we change our behaviour when we are being watched. 

Constructive Authenticity is a dimension of authenticity that looks at authenticity in reference to the cultural context. On Facebook, there are expectations around appropriate behaviour. Acting in accordance with those rules is not inauthentic; in fact to act against those norms may be considered inauthentic (as though you were doing something to intentionally upset someone else). However, the argument that Bertoncini and Schmaltz seem to be making is that millennials are confusing their online personas with offline ones. Perhaps partly because people may be pressured to be as happy and gorgeous offline as they portray themselves to be in social media?

Existential Authenticity is a dimension of authenticity discussed in several posts on this blog. One aspect of existentialist philosophy is addressing the pressure we feel from others to be a certain way. Cultural programming is strong, and can create anxiety when our inner selves do not align with the outer selves we portray–and a main cause of that anxiety is the expectation of others. Certainly social media has become the root of much more anxiety than we have had in the past. Growing up with it, millennials have an almost inevitable draw to use social media, no matter how it makes them feel. 

This question around identity will inevitably spill out into what millennials perceive as authentic as well. Although marketers view every generation as a segment with their own specific attributes based on a variety of factors, perhaps it is time for marketers to attempt to quantify and analyse this type of “distortion” in regards to authenticity and the affect it has on the millennials’ perception of it.

Rendering Authenticity in an Experiential Economy

Generally I don’t reblog posts, however this post combines the philosopher Heidegger and is a great description of Existential Authenticity.

Holistic Marketing Concepts

Authenticity is perhaps one of the most over-used buzzwords in marketing, but what does it really mean? And why is it important?

Some people will describe for you in detail how to come across as authentic in your messaging, why it’s important to be authentic to your customers, or why authenticity is the holy grail of marketing. At the same time, others will tell you never to be authentic or why people simply don’t want the “real” you. But these sorts of approaches tend to focus more on aspects of authenticity rather than getting to the core of the issue. More than just a habit worth practicing, choosing authenticity results in competitive advantage, especially when it comes to brand messaging and connecting with customers. Below are two reasons why.

1. Consumers Want Authenticity

In Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want (Harvard Business School Press), authors James…

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Why does catfishing make some people feel good?

A recent (2014) paper by Leonard Reinecke and Sabine Trapte in the journal Computers in Human Behaviour indicates that authentic, positive social network interaction can enhance well-being offline. Their article “Authenticity and well-being on social network sites: A two-wave longitudinal study on the effects of online authenticity and the positivity bias in SNS communication” has a few key findings on authenticity and social media engagement that are hard to ignore.

The Take Aways
First, this paper consolidates previous studies about individual contributions to social networks. The research indicates that positive messages in social media generate more engagement than neutral or negative messages. This positive bias encourages people to post positive messages (rather than negative) on these networks.

Second, when authentically positive messages are posted and social engagement occurs (usually positive in response), it has the effective of increasing the wellbeing of the person who posts the comment. So this means someone who is already feeling positive, then posts something positive, gets lots of engagement from their online friends, and then (offline) feeling more positive.

Third, people who did not have high levels of well being, regardless of how much engagement their post generates and how (inauthentically positive) it may be, do not get an increase in well-being form their social media interaction.

So basically, authentic online positive social media interactions increase well-being.

How this relates to catfishing
A catfish is someone who uses a false identity on the internet, usually in a romantic context. If the TV show Catfish is anything to go by, then most catfishers are people who are not happy in their own lives.

Many of the catchers claim that the only part of the relationship that was inauthentic was their identity (Objective and Commercial Authenticity). They claim the core of their interaction (Cultural and Existential Authenticity) was authentic. Applying this study, we can infer that when the catfisher is engaging the catifshee in discussions about their (positive) feelings that the interaction generates offline well-being for the catfisher.

So, even though they are pretending to be someone else, catfishers are gaining genuine greater well being from positive interactions as their assumed identity.

So are catfishing relationships authentic? If they generate authentic feelings on both sides, isn’t there something real going on?

The answer to that question is yes and no. If you use the 360 Degree Authenticity analysis, the catfishers will likely have some authenticity (Constructive, Existential) but not other kinds (Objective, Commercial). As the 360 degree model treats authenticity as a holistic measure, without having all the kinds of authenticity in place, one is not authentic from every angle.

And before getting all judgy about online catfishers, I have personally been witness to many an offline relationship where Objective authenticity was in play, but Existential authenticity was absent. Just because you say who you really are, doesn’t men both people are authentically invested in the relationship whether you are online or offline. If you want evidence of that, just watch one of my other favourite (MTV) reality shows: Teen Mom 3.

Authenticity in Seeded Blog Promotions

For those of you interested in authenticity in social media promotions, an excellent paper is Network Narratives: Understanding Word of Mouth Marketing in Online Communities by Kozinets, de Valck, Wojnicki and Wilner in 2010 in the Journal of Marketing. This paper follows a seeded blog promotion for a mobile phone company  and how the bloggers spoke about the phone to their audience, and how accepting the audience was of the promotional posts.

This is one of the great bits of the paper: “…communal WOM (Word of Mouth Marketing) does not simply increase or amplify marketing messages: rather marketing messages are systemically altered in the process of embedding them.” Marketers often see WOM as amplification of their prepared marketing messages (like a megaphone). But people who generate WOM don’t do that. They alter the product-related message to suit themselves, their audience and the specific context in which the message is delivered.

My take on this is that WOM is like a blender–people talking about your product will say whatever they like and mix it in with other ingredients they like–because their goal to promote the product is secondary to their goal of being an effective communicator.

Proponents of authenticity, like myself, would argue that authenticity is a key factor in whether a WOM message is accepted. I read “Network Narratives” with a view to authenticity and then wrote a little bit about it and presented my findings at the Service Management and Science Forum in Las Vegas in August 2013. My paper is called Network Narratives Revisited.

Take Aways
Authenticity, and the desire to seem authentic and credible, plays a role in how the seeded blog messages were accepted by the blog audiences. Kozinet’s analyses did not mention authenticity explicitly all the way through, but a 360da demonstrates that authenticity follows his model closely.

The contribution of this secondary analysis is twofold. First, using a 360da tool is a great way marketers and bloggers embarking on their WOM journey can consider and craft their promotional posts. Marketers should approach generating WOM and authenticity deliberately and use every tool at hand to try as best they can to craft the kinds of messages they are looking for.

The second contribute of revisiting this paper is the recognition that WOM analyses on authenticity do not follow the expected construct for personal communication. Rather WOM is perceived similarly to advertising form an authenticity perspective. So for bloggers to seem more authentic to their audience, they may have to be more deliberate (like an advertisement) rather than natural (like a conversation).

Couchsurfing, AirBnB, User-Generated Brands and Authenticity

This article looks at UGBs (User-Generated Brands) and how those brand identities are created. UGBs are also known in the academic business as “co-production” business models: where customers produce the product along with or for the firm. With AirBnB and Couchsurfing (just like with YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other such sites), customers create as well as consume the inventory. Their engagement is key to the business model, and therefore one can argue they are also co-creating the brand as well. This is the claim of our article for this post “User-Generated Brands and Social Media: Couchsurfing and AirBnb” by Natalia Yannopoulou, Mona Moufahim, Xuemei Bian in Contemporary Management Research.

Yannopoulou and her colleagues use discursive and thematic analysis to examine the brand identity of Couchsurfing and AirBnB. Specifically how their brand identity is co-produced by their customers. Discursive analysis examines the use of language (in this case visual and written language) to discover themes that comprise the brand identity of these two companies. Authenticity was found to be one of the themes in these brands, and likely in other UGBs.

360da
Objective: Although the potential for fraud is high on these web site, Couchsurfing and AirBnB take steps to mitigate that risk. Use of high quality photographs, user testimonials and ratings, and (in AirBnB’s case) an “insurance” plan, attempt to mitigate perceived risks in using the service. Admittedly, Yannopoulou doesn’t address objective authenticity that much in this paper, mainly because they are looking more at brand identity rather than product.

Constructive: The challenge of opening up your private space to a stranger (whether for exchange or profit) is met by fostering the consumer collective as one of reciprocity and friendship. This also constructs the brand as warm, friendly and welcoming. This is augmented by offline meetings when they occur. The more satisfying the offline encounters are, the more the brand identity is enhanced for creating them. The growing exchange and sharing economy is based on the idea that trust within a collective is possible. These sites use tokens to attempt to ensure that level of trust, such as peer reviews, photos and user ratings.

Commercial: There are two questions with commercial authenticity: are you what you say you are and are you true to yourself? When the content of a business is shaped by their customers, ensuring accurate customer representation is important. Both services do that to the extent possible in such a service. The communications on the web site are written in “talking” style, encouraging a feeling of intimacy and informality. The former addresses the first question; the latter attempts to address the second. Both seem to be challenges well met in the analysis.

Existential: In this we are striving for consistency, so customers know what to expect. At the same time, a sense of agency should not be interfered with; imperfections and quirky details create the impression of uniqueness and humanity within the consistent whole. Conventional travelers stay at hotels. The experience these UGBs offer are not only more cost effective. They have the potential to be considered premium experiences because they allow a traveler to embed themselves as locals in another location. The promise of this kind of existentially authentic experience is one of the brand positions of the UGBs. The variety of contributions from their users contribute to it in an authentic way, through their thousands of individuals stories, testimonials, offers, information and photos.

Take Away
Overall, this article makes a contribution to marketing and tourism more than management. Its place in this journal may mean it is overlooked by some in the marketing and tourism communities, which would be a shame. The analysis of how customers co-create brand identities through co-producing content and inventory for business is an enlightening one. There are more and more businesses competing for that space on the internet. The ability to draw premium content from customers enhances the ability to draw customers to consume that content. With UGBs, content is king.

The key authenticity issue for this type of UGB, however, always remains with ensuring objective authenticity. Are individuals offering the kind of accommodation they claim to be offering? Are the photos accurate? The element of risk with these web sites is perceived to be higher than the element of risk involved in traditional accommodation options. Sites like these are doing all they can to mitigate that risk in the exchange and sharing economies being developed by these web sites.

Authenticity in a Terrible Tweet

Generally these posts will be about articles on authenticity. However, an incident occurred on Twitter recently that is just crying out for authenticity analysis.

The Incident
Geoffrey Miller, a tenured professor in the USA, recently tweeted to prospective PhD students “Dear obese PhD applicants: If you don’t have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won’t have the willpower to do a dissertation #truth“. Predictably, the internet world freaked out. Miller then did a few things:

First, he deleted the tweet.

Then he apologised.

Then, when the scrutiny did not abate, he claimed the tweet was part of a research project. However neither of the institutions he works for indicated he had applied for ethics for such a project. This meant that either he was conducting research not sanctioned by his institutions (unlikely) or he was making that up as an excuse (lying, in other words).

Then a completely unrelated study found that if you are obese, especially if you are a woman, you are less likely to be selected for postgraduate study, due to a bias on behalf of those performing candidate selection.

For those of us interested in authenticity, this is an interesting situation. I don’t know Miller, but I am guessing his tweet was authentic. I believe him when he indicated that opinion, and there is no evidence to the contrary. In fact, in his apology, he apologised for saying it–not for thinking it.

Moreover, the subsequent study demonstrated that not only is Miller authentic about his own opinion, he likely gave voice to opinions held by others (at least on some PhD admissions boards).

So was authenticity s good thing in this case?

The case analysed through 360da
Let’s run through this case quickly on a 360da grid:

Objective: Miller tweeted his own opinion under his own name, and represented himself accurately as far as we can see.

Constructive: Miller did not take into account the number of people who would see and then react to his tweet. If this isn’t the reaction he was looking for (and it doesn’t seem to be) then he made a serious misstep. However, the message was authentic, he was authentic when he was saying it and…the audience received it in an authentic way. So his authenticity on this note was 100%; the wrong note was his expectation that people agree with him.

Commercial: Miller was true to himself. Although his tweet didn’t do much for him from a public relations perspective; he knows who he is and potentially just attracted a whole bunch of carb-hating prospective grad students his way.

Existential: His inauthentic move was to apologise and delete the tweet; he would have seemed like a more authentic person if he admitted it was badly worded but it was his perspective as an evolutionary psychologist (and then provided research demonstrating his reasons for thinking it). Instead he was forced by social forces to retract his comment. Giving in to those forces is an inauthentic move.

The verdict
Miller said what he genuinely thought; then tried to backtrack which came across as grossly inauthentic. Then it was revealed that others share his view–they just don’t talk about it (they might not even be aware they share his view). Transparency is a big part of authenticity, so Miller gets points for that.

What is interesting about this case is that his authenticity is, to many, socially repulsive. It is not socially acceptable in a lot of cultures to declare that fat people are less worthy of something than thin people. So although his comments are authentic, this case doesn’t make many look on Miller more positively.

The institutions he represents attempt to maintain the perception of an intellectual meritocracy: where students earn their place through academic rigour. Not eating carbs is not considered academic rigour. And although Miller might have a large say in who ends up being his students, his institution does too. So his perspective as a staff member of a university was not authentic to his employer. And it angered them.

Moreover, rather than put forward the scientific evidence to support his view, he backtracked. This will have lost those (silent) people out there that agree with his point of view. It also made him come across as someone who uses his academic credentials to give his opinion, rather than take an evidence-based approach to his views.

The take away
First, and most obviously, understand the medium one uses to broadcast a message. There is a cautionary tale here for those of us who forget that the internet=the whole world. The whole world=people who don’t agree with you.

Secondly, be prepared to support your view authentically, especially if it is a controversial view.

Thirdly, if you represent an organisation when you say something, that organisation pays you and you wish to continue to be paid, it is important to take into consideration the way that organisation sees itself and wishes to have the public see it.

From a marketing perspective, it is OK to be controversial. It is one of the ways that we make our product/brand stand out. However, doing it strategically, authentically and unapologetically is an approach that Miller, and the rest of us, can learn from.