The Evolving Whiff of Authenticity

I have a theory. Actually, I have several theories, but one in particular at the top of my mind today. I believe we are getting much better at sniffing out BS online.

In face to face encounters, we’re remarkably good at determining if someone’s authentic or not. We pick up cues, consciously and subconsciously, that allow us to make pretty accurate judgements as to the integrity and honesty of an individual. This “gut feel” that seems so vague is actually a sophisticated interplay of activity in various parts of our brain. Although we may not believe it, we’re all pretty good judges of character most of the time. It’s a survival mechanism. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good.

But what if we’re not face to face with someone? That is one of the challenges of the Internet. Often, we have to make judgements about information and the validity of opinions when we can’t see the person eye to eye. There is no editor on the internet, making sure everything we read is accurate and verified. It’s up to us to make the call. We have to act as our own editorial filters, reading between the billions of lines of HTML that are available to us.

Which leads us to something that was a little troubling to me that I heard this week. Every morning here at Enquiro, we have a “huddle” where we each share any news that we have heard that may be of interest to the team. Yesterday morning, Kyle Grant, who just returned from PubCon in Vegas, said he met a representative from a company that fakes blog posts. Basically, you feed the story you want spread about your product or service, and they hire a army of bloggers to post about it. It’s manufactured “buzz”.

Now, it’s not really surprising. As another team member mentioned, you can do the same thing with review comments, forum posts and other forms of commercial consumer generated comments. The door is open, so it’s natural that someone will figure out a way to squeeze through it and game the system. That too is part of human nature.

So, that really puts the onus on each of us to judge how authentic the content is we’re relying on online. And that get’s us back to my theory. I think we’re pretty good. I believe, in the relatively short time we’ve been online, we can pick up the “whiff of authenticity” or, conversely, the “whiff of BS” on most sites. We can tell what’s real and what’s manufactured. We can sort out the meat from the Spam. Like our face to face filters, they’re probably not perfect, but they work most of the time. We will be taken (as Lonelygirl15 showed) but sooner or later, we’ll get to the heart of what’s real.

The other thing that’s unique about the web is that we don’t have to rely just on ourselves to do this. For some reason, there’s still an unspoken law online that we will be diligent (in fact, virulent) about uncovering bogus garbage online. We revel in exposing the seedy underbelly of our culture. The internet has let a breath of fresh air into the previously stiffled world of media control. Before, we were expected to believe anything that came to us through the supposedly pre filtered channels that feed us our view of the outside world. The nightly news, the daily newspaper, the weekly news magazine. As was proven when Dan Rather’s journalistic integrity (or lack of same) was exposed online, we’re probably safer trusting the crazy patchwork quilt of information we get online than we are with the carefully spoon-fed news items we’re get every night through the networks.

Ultimately online, right will prevail, and it will do so much quicker than was true in the power controlled world of just one generation ago. We are less trusting and we are developing a much healthier cynical streak. Every time a door is open for all of us to have a voice, we will see parasitic companies scrambling to push through it, trying to capitalize on our collective gullability. And they’ll thrive, for awhile. But it’s a short term game, because I believe strongly that most times, we’re not as stupid as we look.

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