Transparency and Authenticity – They Aren’t The Same Thing

Transparency and Authenticity – They Aren’t The Same Thing

Every now and then, days seem to take on certain “themes” for me. Like a song stuck in your head, sometimes these themes show up in serendipitous repetition throughout the course of the day, and sometimes they simply annoy the hell out of you until something else comes along to replace it.

Anyway, today’s theme for me seems to be authenticity, and tangentially, transparency.

Brian Solis wrote a post today on Making Mistakes and Amends in Blogger and Media Relations. In it, he gives a pretty decent stab at defining transparency as (paraphrasing) sharing the good AND the bad, warts and all. He also touches upon how difficult it is to try and be a good social networking citizen with regard to qualifying what constitutes proper etiquette in unsolicited communications with contacts and the consequences when you get it wrong.

While I agree in part with Brian’s definition of transparency, the definition really (to me) needs to be broader to encompass the idea of full disclosure as to your intent, and what you stand to gain or lose.

What do I mean?

Let’s say I write a blog post, setting up straw men arguments about why product x and y are inferior but product z is far superior. If I had a vested economic interest in product z (ownership or authorship) and did not disclose that fact, then at the very least I’m certainly not being transparent and indeed am being dishonest.

I see this happen all the time on blogs, when I know the writer has an interest in promoting a book, a point of view, or a product, and yet they choose not to disclose these relationships.

I’ve even called a few on this fact, publicly and privately.

We often confuse being transparency with authenticity, because the act of being transparent is supposed to promote our credibility and trustworthiness – our authenticity.

That’s not always the case. We can spend a great deal of time building our online reputations and credibility, only to have our edifices come crashing about our shoulders through lack of attention or simple oversight. it doesn’t mean that we’re any less authentic, or that we aren’t trying to be true to our selves and the audiences that we are trying to reach – it simply means that we are people and that we from time to time make mistakes or pay less attention than we need to.

We pay a price navigating social media networks when we show ourselves not to be authentic, or when we are shown to systematically hide where our vested interests are while pretending to be honest brokers. That price is in lost face, in lost reputation, and in lost opportunities.

Sometimes we pay that price through not fully understanding “the lay of the land” or the mores of the networks we ply, or because our assumptions of what is acceptable are at odds with the majority of the people we wish to influence. Again, this doesn’t make us any less authentic in our intent, but our perceived authenticity can certainly be dropped by several degrees of magnitude.

One last personal recap of something that happened to me recently.

I was on Twitter and had accidentally indicated that I wanted Rodney Rumford’s tweets (http://twitter.com/rumford) to be sent to my phone. As many of you know, Rodney is a popular guy and my phone was inundated with a lot of traffic that I really didn’t need or want to see. So, I tried to turn these notifications off.

Instead of checking for the right command to do this using SMS, I instead relied on my faulty memory and typed “unfollow rumford”, reasoning that since “follow rumford” got me into this mess, “unfollow rumford” would get me out of it.

BIG mistake.

I immediately got a message from Rodney via twitter asking why was I telling everyone to unfollow him.

WHAT?!?

Shit. Shit. Shit. NOT what I wanted to do. I immediately apologized and set about trying to put things right by publicly acknowledging my mistake (and now feeling pretty much like the new media douchebag I was hoping NOT to become) and of course apologizing to Rodney directly (who was more than cool about it).

For those interested, I should have typed “LEAVE RUMFORD.” Word of advice – check the documentation before being a command line cowboy ;-).

Still, I had just put something out there in the wild that was damaging to someone who is a high influencer, and to whom I attribute a great deal of respect with regard to all things social media related. Not through malice, but by careless inattention to detail. It could have happened to anybody.

I tried to be as transparent as possible in my mea culpas, and tried to act as quickly as I could to disclose my stupidity in order to keep my (and more importantly, Rodney’s) authenticity intact. I think I was reasonably successful – at least Rodney still answers my email ;-).

In the greater view, this was a small bump in the road.

But it is illustrative how much we can damage our online reputations and authenticity from lack of understanding fully the tools at our disposal or by not always being intentional in our online interactions.

Our prior transparency in how we have built our reputations to begin with, and how transparent we are when we have to apologize or attempt conflict resolution on the social networks we traverse when problems arise, will dictate how much authenticity we’ll retain long term with the people we influence and those we wish to.

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