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Authenticity in Social Media

BY Fred Stutzman | Tuesday, May 22 2007

In Mike Turk and Zack Exley's session at PDF 2007, a topic that came up frequently was the creation of perception with social media tools. The discussion explored methods for humanizing the candidate; dropping in on the comments of a blog post seemed a common and popular strategy. The outcome of this type of action is simple - it creates the perception that candidates are actively engaging with digital supporters. Of course, the problem is that this strategy isn't scalable or realistic; if we don't have enough time to read all of the blogs in our newsreader every day, one can only imagine how little time candidates have.

The connections fostered by social media are unique and context-specific. A blog comment is not the same as a Twitter or text message or Facebook share; all of these tools have their own rules and expectations. Perhaps this is why Barack Obama's first Twitter seemed so strange - his avatar seemed to not understand the complexities or expectations of the medium. Of course, once you understand the rules of the medium, it's not hard to create authentic persona for the candidates (though I'm still not sure about Obama's Twitters).

The greater question, however, revolves around the role of authenticity in social media. As candidates move to embrace social networks, online video , blogging and Twitter, will we hold them to the same standards we hold our friends? In these intensely personal mediums, will we eventually grow tired of the sculpted, managed persona? Will we want the candidate to actually be our friend, to drop the shtick, to let loose and get real a little?

Social media has provided presidential candidates a plethora of new methods to engage supporters. At the same time, it has created new expectations - that the candidate update her or his Facebook, that a video blog be posted, etc. As fas as I can see it, candidates have two options for meaningfully engaging audiences in the social media context. The first strategy, one that is currently employed by most candidates, involves the creation of profiles on various services that are managed by staffers. The staffer represents the candidate virtually as the candidate, creating a less-than-authentic identity for supporter interaction.

The second strategy is for candidates to embrace the reality that they can't actually manage their online identities, and for staffers to transparently represent the candidate online. Presidential campaigns are a huge collective effort, and as social media's role in the campaign expands, why not embrace the reality and be open, honest and transparent with supporters about the candidate's online identity.

Why does this matter? I'd argue that its all about the context. Social media is fundamentally different from email, for example, as it is opt-in messaging. I elect to receive John Edwards or Barack Obama's Twitters, and I can easily shut them off if I so desire. By allowing the candidates in, however, I expect them to operate like my other friends in the context - to not spam me, to post useful messages, to respect the privilege of communication. If they do not do so, they run the risk of spam-ifying social media. They run the risk of turning willing message recipients off, shutting off valuable communication channels.

And so what is the answer? Well, ultimately, presidential campaigns are always going to be ego driven. I'm always going to look for the Facebook profile of Hillary Clinton, not her campaign manager. However, these profiles should act as contact brokers - places where individuals can get in touch with (and receive messages from) staffers who are transparent about their identity and role in representing the candidate virtually. Don't worry - we get that the candidate doesn't have enough time to update his or her profiles. At the same time, let's not let that reality cloud its usefulness as a social media contact point.

On this blog we spend most of our time wondering about 2008, but it is clear beyond a doubt that social media will play significant roles in 2008, 2012, 2016 and so on. The candidates that use social media most effectively will set the precedent that will resound for years to come. I've got a feeling that the candidate that most authentically represents her or himself online will be this precedent-setter, and they'll benefit substantially as a result.