So much for authenticity


Authenticity, authenticity, authenticity.

That’s probably the most popular characteristic we prescribe for social web success, and by far the most mis-used, too — and I have an example to show you why.

I attended a social media conference last week filled with a star-studded cast of A-Listers.  I was eager to see them in action.

I learned a lot, but one of these super-hyped speakers really disappointed.  His presentation was profane, vulgar, and chauvinistic.  The content, which gave such tired advice like “be human” and “word of mouth marketing is powerful,” seemed to be just thrown together.  It was one of the worst presentations I’ve witnessed in my career.

By the body language of the people sitting around me, I sensed I was not alone in this sentiment. About a dozen people got up and left the room after the first 10 minutes.  I stayed to watch the train wreck.

Two interesting things happened next.

First, I checked the Twitter stream, thinking that this guy was about to be impaled by a sophisticated audience.  Here is a selection of tweets following his speech:

“XYZ rocked the room!  Wow. What a presentation!”

“XYZ just showed why he is at the top of his game. I am blown away.”

“I have seen XYZ speak several times and he keeps getting better and better.”

What???  Really???

Was anybody authentic?

I knew one of the people who Twitter-gushed over his presentation, and I asked her to explain her assessment. This is what she had to say:

“I didn’t really get anything out of the presentation, and yes, I can see that it was offensive.  But I was trying to support the conference organizers by tweeting positive things and hopefully getting the conference to trend. I guess I think that if you don’t have anything good to say, why say anything at all?”

The second observation was that there were no public Twitter complaints about the presentation. Not one. I found this mystifying but realized that I had not tweeted anything negative either.  I didn’t want to embarrass the hard-working conference organizers. I’m also very aware that I have a very engaged audience and when I tweet something it tends to reverberate, sometimes in unexpected ways.  So I do self-edit and try to set a positive tone.

I can imagine when this guy came off the stage and checked the Twitter stream he would conclude that he just gave the best speech of his life. And, in a way, I helped reinforce that, didn’t I?

So much for authenticity , huh?

What authenticity are we talking about here?

It got me thinking about the social dynamics at work. Here is a definition of authenticity:

The quality of being genuine or not corrupted from the original.

Now in this little episode, there was very little authenticity expressed through the sentiments on the social web.  I didn’t express my genuine thoughts.  My friend didn’t express her genuine thoughts.  I’m guessing many people in the room held their true sentiments in check.  Ironically the only authentic person in the whole scenario was the speaker, who was authentically ineffective.

So does social media authenticity really mean to be genuine … but only when the sentiment is positive?

I don’t think so. Here is another way to look at it. My friend and I WERE true to our principles and our public agendas.  The time wasn’t right to complain or disclose our true sentiments. It would be needlessly hurtful, at least in our judgments.

The “authentic persona?”

While authenticity means being true in every way, that is just an impossible standard and it’s not what people expect any way.  I am not going to come on this blog and say “I am farting constantly today” even though that might be congruent with my nature at that moment. Who needs to know that?

As individuals and brands, the best we can hope for is to be authentic personas, an ideal that we display for the world to see.  It’s not necessarily true.  It’s certainly not accurate.  But I believe it as close to “authentic” as we can hope for. Be yourself. Only a little better.

Be who you promise to be to your tribe, not necessarily who you are.

After hearing “authenticity” being drilled into your skull through 90% of the posts you see on the social web, this idea might seem like a shock. But it drives me crazy when I see people demand that we be authentic, when in fact, nobody is.  And that’s perfectly OK.


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  • Anonymous

    I grimaced in self-recognition. I run into quite a bit of um, uncompelling content, let’s say. And I don’t call it out. The risk is too great. I tend to let my silence speak..and it would seem it doesn’t say enough. Thanks for making me admit this.

  • I think there’s a time and a place for everything, and there’s a fine line between brutal honesty and brutality. I have a basic premise: if you ask for my opinion or advice, I’m of the silly belief that you actually want to hear it. So when asked, I will offer an honest, tactful response. However, I choose when and if I will offer, unsolicited, an opinion or review. And when I do, it won’t be about the person, but about the content.

    I maintain a simple rule when I facilitate or chair meetings: disagree with issues, not people. I think that’s the same in written communication. Is that being authentic? (authentic being a much overused word) I don’t know, but that’s how I roll. Cheers! Kaarina

  • You know, this is a topic that I think (and write about) often. People need to be reminded that authenticity is *externally defined*; that is, those observing and interacting with you make that determination.

  • When your A-listers declare their disdain for Twitter complaints about flight delays, bad customer service, slow food prep, etc, etc, etc on their blogs, podcasts, and so on, it creates a feeling that you shouldn’t tweet true criticism – a feeling that you shouldn’t tweet anything if you don’t have anything nice to tweet perhaps, as you essentially say above. A next logical step for (some) people is to get wrapped up in the enthusiasm of the moment or, even more likely, the sense that you have to be sensationalistic on Twitter to gets anyone’s attention, because after all, no one likes a whiner, much less a public whiner, and don’t forget that the A-listers already told you what bad form it is to complain on Twitter 😉

    So, authenticity or the lack thereof? Maybe, but I think it is in addition to this likely that your average social media conference goer has been enculturated to go beyond your average “put your best foot forward,” “don’t say needlessly hurtful things,” etc to the opposite hide of emphasizing the unreal and imagined positives of the moment… “Because isn’t that what everyone else is doing?” 😉

  • Agree authenticity does not mean expressing whatever you feel like all the time. ‘Why say anything at all, if you don’t have anything good to say’ is very good advice, but do not see how your friend’s actions in this example are authentic. She was effectively lying by tweeting positive things about a presentation she hated, while she could’ve said nothing (like you did). To support the conference, she had the option of tweeting about talks she genuinely felt positively.

    Trying to project the image of ‘who you think what your followers think about who you promise to be’ (effectively) even to the extent of lying seems like posturing or convincing themselves that they are authentic.

  • skip balch

    Question: If your identity could be hidden, would you have sent a negative tweet? Or, if someone who knew you were at the conference sent you a public tweet and asked your opinion, would you have responded publicly and authentically, privately, or not at all? Did you privately let the speaker know of your thoughts so that he might learn and improve? The real question is just how important was it to you. In this instance, it apparently wasn’t that important and unlike many people on twitter, you decided discretion was the better part of narcissism. Gud 4 u.

  • Mark, I’d say that the “be authentic” mantra is geared toward individuals serving as community managers for brands and people representing their businesses. With the instruction intended to get the individuals to be more of themselves as an individuals and not some stiff corporate suit.

    As for this situation, I’d say you acted authentic to your personal values. You applied a filter to your social commentary, just like you would in any situation. None of us ever always say what we are thinking. But that doesn’t mean we are not being authentic. The definition of authentic doesn’t imply that you aren’t if you don’t blurt out every thought that comes to mind.

    I’d propose the complete opposite. You were actually being very authentic to yourself and your belief system. If you value kindness, you were true to what you believe in and not as my kids are learning, “emptying someone else’s bucket.”

  • Sorry you had to sit through such a dreadful presentation. Ugh.
    Authenticity has become one of those buzz words that has been used so much it has lost its meaning. People tend to twist it to their own design. People who like to swear a lot make a case for frequent cursing being authentic. People who overshare say that being an open book is authentic. People who like to complain … well, you get the idea.

    For me, authenticity isn’t about feeling compelled to tell the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth. All. The. Time. (Discretion is often the better part of both valor and social graces.) It’s about being truthful when I do decide to speak, and it’s about doing what you say you’re going to do. It’s about being who you are instead of pretending to be someone you’re not. You don’t have to share your deepest darkest secrets to be authentic. You just need to be honest with whatever you do decide to share.

  • I also cringed at the sexist comments (so 1975!) and the general arrogance of the presenter, but was not about to tweet that. Instead, I selected a tidbit that I thought had value and tweeted that instead. In fact, I included it in my blog post after the conference.

    So, I think once again it proves just how similar our online behavior is to our offline behavior, and therefore “authentic” in a very similar way. Most of us don’t go around spouting every belief and thought that pops into our heads. Can you imagine a world like that? Instead, we edit ourselves and generally opt for showing good manners and making a positive contribution. Anything otherwise just wouldn’t be real.

  • Hmmm…is it hurtful to say “Disappointing presentation from XYZ”? Is it cruel to quote a chauvinistic statement that XYZ has said out loud to a group? XYZ should now that what’s said in a room at a social media conference doesn’t stay in a room–except when others collude. There’s a way to do this that’s neither negative nor cruel, but still authentic and honest. Are you really protecting the organizers? Sounds to me like the only person being protected is the presenter.

  • Lynn Ruby

    Thanks for this thought provoking post Mark.

  • skip balch

    “…being truthful when you decide to speak…” well said!

  • Anonymous

    Great post Mark! I’ve been in exactly this same situation myself. You make a great point about human nature. Tweeting or not, discretion is a valuable trait. XYZ’s behavior did not go unnoticed. At some point, without self-reflection and understanding, XYZ will be living the consequences of that behavior.

  • We love this post. So so true…. a new spin on what authenticity really is and what it realistically needs to be for your strategy.

  • Yes, so true. Authenticity is a useful idea, but it isn’t actually an ideal. I’ve riffed on this a couple times, rather than post another book in your comments, here are two links for those that are interested:

    Don’t Be Authentic: Real Social Media Marketing Advice (on SpinSucks):

    Replacing Authentic in Social Media:

    None of us want authentic, we just want to believe what we see in you COULD be authentic. Great reviews seem authentic, and notably, cutting down a well-regarded A-lister could be seen as self-serving and unbelievable (even if it is authentic).

    I agree, being authentic is not what’s important. We need to get over it and focus on what is.

  • Carolina HeartStrings

    What a shame – speak your mind everyone! It’s just a disservice to the community as a whole to ride the BS train….

  • Debbie

    I had the same thing happen with someone I admire and quote regularly. You’ve inspired me to reach out to this person privately with my feedback. His presentation made my business peers very uncomfortable. This reflected on me since they weren’t as familiar with his work and I’m consistently referring them to it. Bummer. I’ll let you know how the feedback is received.

  • Twitter would be a much different place if we had diodes connected to our heads that transmitted our unfiltered thoughts into 140 characters. Actually, it might be pretty entertaining… or maybe that’s just me.

  • You have expressed the sentiments that gall me each and every day. I don’t even buy the justification these folks provided- I believe that they lacked the courage of their convictions and were afraid if they dared mock, deride, or declaim the awful presentation of someone so “well-regarded”, it would recoil upon them. Pshaw! We need more folks to remind us when the Emperor is half-baked and has no clothes!

  • Wow. This is a tough one. I’ve always prided myself on being
    honest, even when it’s unpopular or might have negative consequences for
    me. I don’t want to compromise on honesty. At the same time, we all censor
    ourselves at times and we are all (hopefully) cognizant of the impact what we
    say might have on others and on our own reputation and future. Personally, I
    don’t think I would have tweeted positively about the person. That would be
    against my personal philosophy. But I might well have chosen to say nothing—and
    that’s no better, really.

    I should be willing to speak up. The unwillingness to
    speak is exactly why some people are on the A-list who probably shouldn’t be
    there. Too many yes-people and not enough honest feedback. And because people on
    the A-list are considered experts, when they speak about social media, what they
    say reflects on our industry. If they are spewing bull or are offensive, it
    reflects on all of us. Ultimately, when the truth comes out and their crap is
    seen as crap, people who aren’t as knowledgeable about social media marketing—our
    customers—label social media marketing crap, and are likely to paint all the
    consultants and practitioners with the same brush.

    So, in the end, I think our unwillingness to speak
    out comes back to haunt us. We pay the price for our own cowardice. As we should.

  • Anonymous

    You brought up good points. I didn’t attend the session, but would I have been brave enough to tweet, “XYZ: “Some offensive comment.” Did s/he really just say that? #offensive” Would I have been like Paul, and post what I heard that was good? Am I being inauthentic in doing that, or just “skimming the cream”? Am I too concerned with keeping an A-Lister on my “peeps” list that I say nothing? Hard questions.

    What I will say is that when someone peppers their speech with vulgarity or hatefulness it affects how I value anything they say, whether they are considered a “guru” in that field or not. Maybe that just makes me not their intended audience. So be it.

  • To hear a bad presentation and say nothing is fine. It speaks to the credo “if you have nothing nice to say…say nothing.” But if you dislike the presentation and tweet “Great talk by XYZ!” Aren’t you, er, lying?? There is nothing authentic in that communication at all. Tweeting is a choice. No one is standing next to you saying, “Hey, like my shirt?” and you are obligated to find something nice to say. Silence speaks volumes. If people authentically are mute about things that are awful, the rest of us get the message. Just like I teach my son, tell the truth, or say nothing if you think it will be hurtful. and then you are authentic inside and out.

  • Was “not wanting to embarrass the conference organizers” really the reason? After all, nobody worries about tweeting negatively about businesses they’ve had poor experiences with – and those tweets often lead to the problem being resolved if the business is social-savvy. Keeping your complaints quiet is unfair both to the conference organizers, who can’t fix a problem they’re not aware of, and to the other conference attendees, who are devoting a significant amount of money and time to attend the conference every year.

    This also isn’t the first time I’ve seen bloggers throwing around extremely harsh criticisms of social media “A-listers” while refusing to specify who they’re talking about. At the same time, these bloggers typically have no qualms calling out other businesses and individuals by name for their mistakes; anonymity seems to be the sole privilege of those with high social media reputations. I find it hard to believe that the reluctance to publicly criticize these people is completely unrelated to social media reputation.

    To be honest, it’s hard to criticize that. I’m not sure I could bring myself to tweet something negative about someone with thousands followers either, at least not as long as I intend to maintain a professional image on Twitter. After all, criticizing someone that is considered a major influencer could kick off a massive wave of internet drama even if they take the feedback well, and a bad reaction from their followers could cause major damage to a person’s social media reputation. Just as businesses will often do their best to keep on big influencers’ good sides, social media professionals will do the same.

    However, if it’s impossible to say bad things about social media superstars, then incidents like this are only natural. Since everyone at the conference tweeted nothing but praise for the speech, that same A-lister will be invited to speak again at the next conference, and the next conference, and every one after that unless people start speaking up about their dislike of that speaker’s presentation. And if that’s how people act at conferences, what does that say about social media reputation overall? How many “star-studded” social media giants are real, and how many are just floating on an endless bubble of praise by people unwilling to say anything negative about a person with a lot of followers?

  • Anonymous

    And what about the social media “rock stars” writing books about business and corporate strategy who never held an executive position in a corporation or ran a business (other than spending 8+ hours a day on social media promoting themselves)?

    It’s not “authenticity” that should come into question (everybody shows you the side they want you to see, regardless of whether it’s actually who they really are) – rather, the rampant stupidity of the masses exhibited daily on the social space.

    Perception is reality for those looking at only a twitter following or a klout score (the masses). Those same people should dig a little bit into the background of their “idols” and realize that many of them don’t have the backgrounds to back up their presentations (or books).

    Fortunately, the end of the world is near and this will all soon be over (the Mayans had it all timed out right).

  • You and I have made each other admit a few things over the years, haven’t we? : ) Thanks Jenn!

  • Thanks for taking the time to add you comment today Alex.

  • No, I would never send “fake tweets” under an assumed name. That is not how I roll. I take accountability for my actions. Likewise, I would not have have started a public conversation blasting another person.

    I do not intend to send a message to the speaker because I’m quite sure it would do no good.

    Thanks Skip.

  • I think you’re right Jeremy but I still think the whole “authenticity” thing is over-used in any setting. We definitely don’t expect community managers to be authentic. They would be fired. But I get your point that we are trying to push companies to be more human. : ) Thanks. Always an honor to have you comment!

  • This comment really hits home to me Jamie. It’s the same when people hide behind being “snarky” like that is some kind of a positive “authentic” attribute. It’s an excuse to be an ass. Somehow this authenticity thing has embedded itself in the DNA of the social web as a mutant gene. : )

  • You’re most welcome, Lynn.

  • I believe that to be true. I was actually “scouting ” for speakers for Social Slam. That fella will never grace our stage. SO the consequences have already begun. Thanks for stopping by today Kathi!

  • Thanks for the kind words.

  • Well said friend. Thanks for sharing those valuable links.

  • A valid point of view. Thanks for the dissension.

  • We should do that for one day. National Diode Day sponsored by Nao Communications. : )

  • The sad thing, the willingness to speak out can come back to haunt us too as I am sure you have witnessed many times. It’s an economy of favors and those favors dry up fast with negativity. I go both ways on this one. I have gotten myself into trouble for speaking out and I would say generally it has been worth it. Don’t know how you can be credible and not speak out on the things you really believe in.

  • Thanks very much for taking the time to share this insight Susan.

  • This is a very insightful and fair comment. At one time or another this blog has called out Chris Brogan (multiple times), Mitch Joel, Jason Falls, Guy Kawasaki, Jay Baer and others. And yes, it can come with drama. And yes, I think that does go into my thinking sometimes because frankly I get tired of the drama. This particular speaker had already labeled people who disagree with him as “haters,” essentially insulating himself from all criticism, which I HATE by the way. That is such a small-minded attitude.

    Tell you what. I’ll do my part. I’ll write the conference organizer and make my thoughts known. So at least one person will check in with the truth. Thanks.

  • Oh man this is a whole ‘nother can of worms. I am absolutely bowled over by what people buy into as credible and intelligent. There is almost no critical thinking on the social web. OK … I’m getting wound up. Let’s just say I agree with you Dan. Thanks for the comment.

  • That is an interesting nuance. I would say I am much more direct in person. I’m a little freaked out sometimes by how close some people follow (stalk?) my Twitter stream and blow things up, out and every which way so I have basically been forged into an efficient (albeit conservative) tweeting machine : )

  • Thanks Jason.

  • Ugh. An ugly reality. An ugly thing to think about but probably true. Gee I feel like i need a shower.

  • Honestly Paul I’m surprised you found anything positive in that talk, let alone reinforce it. I was appalled.

  • Ouch. You’re right. Probably could have got the message across. Unspoken collusion from 250 people. Thanks Laura.

  • Wow. Interesting. Good luck with that Debbie!

  • Point well taken Roy. Thanks for the comment.

  • Well said Donna. Thanks for the great comment.

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  • Hi Mark,

    Your post reminded me of a conversation I had recently about a social media superstar. Everyone rants and raves that this person is a “rock star” and a “thought leader” while I thought he or she sounded like a meth addict. But, this person is quite well respected and successful. The person I was talking with was a close friend so I told her my thoughts, but would I voice them in real life? Or online? Probably not. I wouldn’t sing their praises but I wouldn’t speak badly of them either.

    If I was listening to them speak at a conference, I would have done the same thing as you. 🙂

  • To me it would have been much more authentic to simply comment that you are AT the presentation by XYZ at ABC Conference. That way you are supporting the organizers of the event by mentioning the event while not praising or bashing the presenter.

  • I’ll disagree. I hold that anyone who cheered him on while harboring negative feelings was authentically afraid to speak up.

    I applaud you for authentically saying what you think… but did you tweet that during the presentation?

    Shock jocks are popular because people like to be shocked. 🙂

    Reality is just the most popular illusion

  • You bring up an interesting nuance here Samantha. If the person were not in your field, would it have been different? Kind of like criticiziing a neighbor in a way? : )

  • A good way to handle it. Thanks Richard.

  • A friend opined that the reason this person was so popular is because he was so shocking and offensive. Maybe there is a Howard Stern in every field. In a business setting, I found this really disgusting, however. Thanks Warren!

  • Mark, thanks for highlighting this all too common problem. I value the discussion. I do have a question for you and your readers. How would you react to receiving negative comments throughout the social web about one of your presentations? How would your tribe “Handle” the critic? Perhaps, this is why authenticity is so hard to define.

  • Anonymous

    Mark, thank you for highlighting this all too common problem. I appreciate the comments and have a question for you and your readers. How would you react if someone spread negative comments about your presentation throughout the social web? How would your tribe handle the critic? Perhaps, the complexity associated with defining authenticity is tied to this answer.

  • If it were me that had made the presentation and made so many people uncomfortable, i would like to be told – but privately, please, not in a public forum. I do hope that my friends and peers would put aside their reservations about broaching the subject with me.
    Honesty, tempered with respect for my feelings. Only trouble is, I wonder if the perceived public approval might make me deaf to the constructive criticism…

  • Unless you’re an ass, it’s really awkward to offer negative feedback publicly. Most people will choose to not say anything. And what in your mind was crap may have impressed some of the ones who praised them.

    Sure, the echo chamber (and conferences are miniature ones), is overly supportive and positive. But it’s because those that criticize publicly — even when they’re doing so from a non-emotional perspective, with logic and reason behind them — are seen as assholes, trolls, turds, etc.

    Case in point … you didn’t call this person out in your post. Why? Because you don’t want to attack or offend. If you’re sitting at a conference and Tweet, “The presenter I’m watching is awful. I expected more,” everyone in the room knows who you’re talking about.

    Not saying we shouldn’t find ways to be more authentic and constructive in how we give feedback to people, but doing it publicly is against human nature … at least for those with some humanity.

  • Brilliant point. This is what I hinted at in the post when I said that sometimes my tweets reverberate. Some A-Listers cultivate a tribe of sycophants addicted to the idea of being associated with power for the sake of power. I think this speaker is in that category. As I mentioned in another comment, he insulates himself by categorizing any dissent as “haters” ( a common tactic).

    The risk of being insulated is something I do think about. On the blog at least, I do work hard to cultivate a culture where dissent is encouraged and I sense that works but can never know for sure. I’m sure there is a category of people who think I suck and I would never know.

    Yesterday, I challenged a friend and fellow blogger about a strategy she was undertaking that I thought was ill-advised and overtly self-promotional. On top of that, people were complaining about it behind her back because they were being asked to promote the effort. I told her I would not promote it and why. It may have hurt the relationship but I least I’m not passive-aggressive by just ignoring it. I’m taking accountability and telling her what is going on. I hope people would do the same for me.

    Thanks for the great comment.

  • I think that works if the speaker cultivates a group of people who will speak honestly. I do not think this person has done that. He has groupies. Thanks for the great point Jeremy.

  • Anonymous

    Mark, you are a gentleman and a scholar. I really appreciate you reading and replying to my comment. I have been following your blog this past year and look forward to meeting you IRL (in real life). Enjoy the holiday!

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  • For me Mark, as others in this GROW community have mentioned… authenticity has been, and is now becoming more important than ever as we are more connected on the many, and various social platforms.

    Authenticity as seen from the perspective of social etiquette in general, and social media etiquette in particular as you have so eloquently explored above… for me is one of personal choice.

    If what you are thinking to share does not make you feel good…stop! Do not act on emotional feelings since by their very nature are irrational.

    The approach I have found to work is sharing: I feel _______ when you ________.

    This statement does not attack, blame, offend. and/or manipulate. This statement only shares with the other person how what has been done/said has effected you; and s/he then has a choice to change if s/he wants to continue a relationship with you.

    For your review, an introduction to “Authenticity and You” written 2007 is here

  • Hehehe… Let’s do it!

  • Jim Kukral

    Yeah, and it’s a bad business decision too.

  • What a vicious little circle.. The catch-22 – and there are about 345 here – is all about perception.

    See what @JasonFalls:disqus wrote about being seen as an ass or flamer, b/c we dared rock the boat. Depends. If someone’s of your A-list status Mark, you can get away with a professional ‘Interesting but I expected more’ comment; it’ll be perceived as being honest and well-reasoned, dare I say ‘authentic.’ Were someone like me call out someone – by name – I get the ‘link bait’ troll label but quick. Because people perceive motivations (that sometimes aren’t there), think I’m trying to trade on so-and-so’s name.

    Back to presentations.. again, perception and expectations. My guide as a presenter is to try provide good, actionable content that you can’t get elsewhere (i.e. my blog), share more; so I judge on that bias. I had a good time at SoSlam and yes, tweeted the good stuff; wanting to be authentic not negative, my recap mentioned than I got more out of meeting people than the actual content.

    We do tend to keep negativity in check – if for no other reason, we don’t want that karma to come back, bite us on our asses. In my own way, I like to think I disgree a ‘fair’ bit .. I just do so in a constructive, positive way. And yes I probably do hold my tongue in many ways – more than I should – fear of being misunderstood, judged, reaching above myself, etc. Or just seeming a douchebaggette. 😉

    Sigh.. yes these are personas, these are the images we choose to project. Insert my standard [this is the real me, not the whole me] line here. FWIW.

  • Anonymous

    I think there is a major point we are missing here: it’s about getting seen. Let me explain.

    Is it appropriate to flame anyone, for any reason, ever in a public forum? No, absolutely not. it doesn’t do any good, and in fact, it does harm (it hurts the person and doesn’t benefit any of the audience). While we like to think of these A-Listers as “brands”, and they are in their own right, they are very brands than Sears, Coke or GM. With a brand like Sears, Coke or GM we tweet warnings all the time in hopes that our peers won’t make the same mistake (bad customer service with brand X), but we don’t do it with people, because, well, they’re people.

    With that, is it required that someone tweet positive stuff when they don’t need to? of course not, and often times silence is the most powerful tool out there. If speaker XYZ was once tweeted about a lot and now not at all, that should tell the conference organizers his/her appeal is dwindling. Additionally, you not showing up at his/her next talk reinforces that. However, when you say “XYZ is awesome”, all you are doing is making sure someone else who has never seen XYZ speak will fill your chair when you don’t show up.

    So why do people tweet in authenticate tweets about an A-Lister? simple: they are looking to get retweeted and be seen by XYZ’s legion of faithful followers and bolster their own numbers. We inside the echo chamber continue to talk about quality over quantity, but, for now, it’s still a numbers race.

    Erik Boles

  • Let’s make that happen!

  • Add me to the lovers of this post. Some GREAT comments. I had the bad sense to tweet my disagreement with a SM “rock star” once. His retweet went to his 100s of thousands of followers. It takes a strong stomach to get into with someone who has that level of influence. Next time, I’ll be better prepared to respond to the response.

  • Opinions and facts carry the same weight in the media these days. So you can never be “lying.” You are merely stating an opinion. If we deny the existence of actual facts, we deny an absolute truth.

  • Thanks for sharing your wisdom on this Jason. You did make me think of an aberration — SXSW. When presentations go south at SXSW people are brutal. They boo, tweet, and walk out. Not sure what it is about that crowd but just as there are cultural differences between nations, there are probably subcultures even within the US that have different expectations on feedback. There is even diversity of expectations within this very comment section. Quite interesting, isn’t it?

  • This response has me tangled up. How do you view authenticity through a lens? Once you apply a lens, it’s not genuine any more. It’s something else. Authentic means unadulterated. That’s my point. People say “authentic” but they mean something else. Perhaps you do too?

  • I don’t know why the only two possibilities are to praise/say nothing or speak out publicly with negative comments. Why not send a private note to the conference organizers? Or why not suggest to the conference organizers that in the future they should ask that anonymous surveys be submitted.

  • You bring up an important point here about disagreement versus “calling somebody out.” I’m not sure there is even much tolerance for disagreement in this space.

    As I mentioned in a previous comment, this particular speaker insulated himself when, during his speech, he labled those who disagree with him as “haters.” He will probably never get a disagreement and if he does, it won’t make any difference. Thanks for the ALWAYS thought provoking comments Davina!

  • Yes. Sad but true. There is that. Thanks Erik.

  • Markj

    If your “authentic persona” is one that never has a negative word to say, then you’re not someone I’d generally value following. If (for this example) I’m another conference organizer, I wouldn’t hesitate to book your ineffective and offensive speaker, which would be a mistake. Also, you’re not giving the speaker a chance to improve, since all he hears is that he was wonderful…

    While people like to be around Pollyanna, they don’t particularly value her advice.

  • You know ‘haters gonna hate’ – sometimes valid, but sometimes it’s an easy out, excuse to try to justify your position as the only right one. And don’t get me started on that – so many different positions, so many smart people out here, YMMV – never mind that my stuff can be just as good, but alas I lack the list-status and tribe support and am watchful of how I might be perceived. Personas it is I guess. Have a good weekend.

  • We’re kind of dancing around that topic of “taking a stand” in blog posts again. I think a willingness to be honest is valued and appreciated. My style is to not attack people but you can attack issues and also disagree in a caring way. At least i try to!!!

  • Ridiculous, isn’t it? You will never get that treatment from me. If you do, please give me a swift kick in the ass.

  • Certainly a valid perspective Mark. Thanks for caring enough to comment!

  • Mark, I’ve been reading through the comments and it’s clear you hit a sensitive issue for many people, so I want to congratulate you on igniting this important conversation. What strikes me is the assessment of the person who said she tweeted the positive things only to support the conference. I wonder if it could be that she had bought into what the speaker was saying, and enjoyed the presentation, and then didn’t have the confidence to disagree with your evaluation? It’s hard to say, but I think another way to handle posting your true feelings without outright bashing a speaker would be to ask the audience, using the conference hashtag, “What does everyone think of the keynote speaker? I was hoping for more concrete examples. #conference” for example. Perhaps that would encourage a constructive, not overly critical, conversation about the topic.

  • As an aside note, even if no one was really impressed but chose to tweet positively, don’t you think it will still impact on the speaker’s reputation? Even if people appear positive don’t they go away, stop reading the a-lister’s blog, stop commenting, cease to take what they say seriously?

  • Sorry Mark for getting you all “tangled up.” You have me rethinking the phrase I used “lens” as on a camera does not present an “unadulterated” representation — I’m still wondering about that so I have edited/changed “lens of” to “perspective of” Does this work for you???

    P.S. After leaving this post I googled “the lens of authenticity” and found this among other references…

    “…if we look at it through the lens of authenticity then we will see that it is only living truly. It is living without all of the junk that builds up on us, without the peripheral things that only serve as distractions and keep us from real and abiding happiness. If we are going to follow our vocation we need to learn to live more and more authentically from moment to moment. That means that we need to learn to see the world through the lens of authenticity instead of through the lens of control.” [}

  • Well I guess I’m an ass in your books. If somethings sucks I’ll say it sucks, but when it’s great, I’ll shout from the rooftops that it was fabulous. And yes, I do that daily with clients, in movies, at theaters, and in social settings. Yet to this day I’ve yet to be called anything other than straight up and honest.

    My stance is that if you celebrate crap when you know it’s crap you partaking in that persons demise… I have a conscience, a brutal one maybe, but at least it’s honest.

  • Keep in mind it’s not the fact you question publicly that makes one an ass. It’s how you do it. The vast majority of people who do public call outs like Mark mentions don’t do it tactfully. So I’m not calling you or anyone an ass because you might question. It depends on how you question.

    I also start with questioning people’s motivations, too. Pundits hammering on brands who are ultimately motivated by ego or “my firm can do it better, so hire us” kinda bug me. But that’s just my perspective.

  • Mark, so true. I’ve been writing about it a bit too lately.

    Not sure most people care if the “weblebrities” say something stupid, wrong, or bland. Too many groupies are just happy to sit in the presence of the “Great ones.”

    They are authentic groupies.

  • Jeff

    But is that actually authentic? For many people, a dry factual statement would be out of character with its lack of value-add.

  • Jeff

    “Just do the job you’re paid to do. Just sell the thing.”

    It’s a pragmatic option, but not one I could pull off. I’m better at being authentic rather than acting at believable.

  • What you’ve described here is something I feel is a big issue with living and working in the social media bubble. The echo chamber of idolism does no-one any good.

    I kind of think there are ways of offering negative feedback through social media that aren’t necessarily offensive. At this conference, would tweeting something like “Really disappointed in XYZ’s presentation” have been so awful? It’s honest and authentic without being rude or cruel. And it doesn’t fall into the whole echo chamber trap of positive reinforcement (in this case through silence) for people who really don’t deserve it.

    That all said, I wrote a post recently calling out someone who spammed me with an email wanting a paid post. It was such an awful example of blogger relations that I felt compelled to write it up…but I chose NOT to hide the name of the person who approached me. I did so essentially because of the way they approached me (anonymously, see:, but does this make me a troll or an ass? I prefer to think it’s being honest and authentic. Maybe I’m wrong?

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  • @facebook-512878894:disqus @jasonfalls It’s funny how much I have been thinking about this topic in the past 24 hours. These comments have my wheels turning. We would all be better off I think if we were a little more like Ameena. The more time I spend on the social web the less I am myself I think. I am becoming homogenized. I think I need to re-assess and re-group.

  • Have to think about that one. An interesting view. But speaking only for myself, it would put me in a weird place the moment somebody turns it around and says “I liked it — what did YOU think Mark?” Thanks for the thought-provoking comment Katie.

  • You would think that to be the case. This is what I would predict too. However it is not what i have observed. First, there is a large number of people who are sycophantic followers. They want a piece of whoever is in the lead and will dutifully RT whatever crap is thrown out there. Second there is still this constant churn of newcomers to the web who look at the social proof and decide to follow. Perhaps they will become disenchanted. perhaps they will become a sycophant. But there is always a long line of people ready to follow. My two cents.PS – Nice to see you back in action! I’ve missed you!

  • Absolutely. It is an amazing thing to see isn’t it?

  • It’s really a tightrope walk. Calling out true trolls is probably deserved. But I’ve found out that even offering feedback to people privately is hazardous. Maybe it has something to do with being part of the Barney Generation where even mediocrity is celebrated and constructive feedback is dismissed as being a “hater.” Weird times. Thanks very much for contributing your insight Paul.

  • I wasn’t there, but after a minimal amount of sleuthing I figured out who it was and frankly it’s not the first time that this “rock’star” has rubbed people the wrong way. So it surprises me in the least on the one hand and on the other, I’m surprised that people let him get away with it. Sort of like Athletes and Movie stars acting like brats right?

    It bothers me a little bit that people wouldn’t call a spade a spade or call bullshit on people. But it’s understandable why.
    We can blame it on 2 things. The fear of reprisals is first and foremost. I have seen out and out pitched battles in social circles with this person in the past on other issues and it gets ugly and nasty quick. So I could see where calling someone out particularly this person is just not worth it. Mark you are to be commended for taking the high road, but I can see that it bothered you.
    I coach a lot of teams from little kids all the way to high school and we have a saying. “Act like you’ve been there before” and “Remember that you are entitled to nothing.” Eventually it catches up with everyone and I mean everyone…

  • shoot, just wrote a halfway eloquent response without being an ass, and it got wiped out before sending. Perhaps it was not “authentic” and the universe gave a heads-up.
    here’s “authentic” version: You stated that you are “appalled” at the incident, yet not so appalled as to take a stand of action.
    “authenticity” refers to one’s true self, one’s true nature, and presenting accordingly and honestly to the public and/or peers….no? close enough?
    If it is in your true nature to stir up a dilemma, and suggest that “others” should have taken the action, (which involves risk)….
    ….then yes, you are being “authentic.”
    If it is part of your true nature to imply that the behavior is acceptable in your tribe, or even across the web (due to lack of action)….
    ….then yes, you are being “authentic.”
    If it is part of your true nature as a leader, to encourage others that someone else with guts has to be the fall guy, and tweet a straight-forward assessment for the sake of the tribe and humanity….
    …..then yes, that would be “authentic.”
    If your true self is at conflict with this guy’s behavior, and what it teaches and perpetuates throughout your tribe (and others) , and if you’re at conflict so much as to write a public statement expressing how “appalled” you have become, but not appalled enough to take action….
    ….then yes, that would be “authentic.”
    “If” that is what you are teaching, then fine. I have actually had to temper a bit myself, by not naming names on a blog post. So understand that. But I challenged them directly on twitter. Guarantee you, that by doing so, some negative outcomes there. Being called a troll is always one of those.
    There is a lot of talk on this page that certain people have to temper and moderate their “authenticity” for others. I don’t think so. For those people “moderation” and blind tolerance might not be “authentic” for their nature.
    You got to present authentically. Correct? The guy you are appalled with presented authentically perhaps, sure sounds like it….and there is a lesson on this page, that those who present in a different fashion, may not? without taking the heat?
    You won’t give the guy heat, but those who would like to present authentically for their nature, will take the heat?
    Maybe that guy gave a better lesson in “authenticity.”

  • Holy cow, you’ve sure gotten a lot of feedback on this post! Good for you. I think like Jason Falls that negative feedback is just not cool. Saying nothing is better and if this guy was such a jerk, the response in LIFE will come…

  • The beauty of the social media is that, in that environment, everyone has a voice. Deservedly so. The strands of commentary on this topic epitomizes the diverse viewpoints of the commentators. And none of them cannot be faulted as this is purely of a matter of opinion and perception which is entirely personal to each individual.

    The question is: what is the expected take-out from seminars, conferences and workshops ? My answer, VALUE. Value for money, time and energy well spent. If any partaking in any conference leaves ME short-changed on my expectations, I am bound to frown, complain and seek redress.
    Academic fora are not supposed to be tea parties where just about anything can slip past our critical faculties in the name of being civil or personable.If a speaker has done a shoddy job, say it, LOUD. The papering over and all the PR considerations, leaves all concerned, the poorer, ultimately.
    You cannot expect Authenticity when we can not even call a spade by its appropriate name, for fear of being “inappropriate”. Just like in other spheres of daily living, our AUTHENTIC viewpoints are colored by not-so-Authentic focus on self aggrandizement.

  • I like your attitude Ameena. I also agree with Jason below that it matters how you express your opinion, but what you say about contributing to someone’s demise is a great way of thinking about it. We never get any better when all we hear is phony applause.

  • Philip M. Anderson

    I’ve got to say this is one of the most thought provoking posts I’ve read in a long, long time. Just as I start to form an opinion siding one way when another comment starts to pull me in the other direction. I suspect it’s like all of the major ‘issues’ that there are strong arguments to support both sides.

    Thank you for this post and all of these comments. GREAT content! And I’m pretty sure I’m being 100% genuine and thus, as authentic as I can be. : )


  • Be authentic, but only if you’re not an ass. If you’re an ass, pardon us negativity and fake it. I’d rather have that another Debbie downer.

  • Marc, thanks for this extraordinarily wise comment. One of the problems I have in this space is that I care deeply. I care for people, I care for our profession and I care for customers. So when I see something like this happening, it makes me really angry. But here’s what I’ve also found. Most people don’t want debate. They don’t want discussion. They want everybody to just go along. Perhaps there is a common strain of insecurity among people attracted to social media or perhaps there is a strain simply among us all but many times when I challenge somebody — even privately and in a nurturing way — it is met with ugliness.

    So I am learning to keep my mouth shut. People only want authenticity if it makes them feel good. So it creates this constant dissonance in me. I see all this BS, I see people happily going along with it and know that by my silence I am adding to the problem. At the same time, saying something often makes things worse. I come from a corporate background where this kind of healthy debate was encouraged so I find the social web a very strange place. Quite a psychological study.

    Many thanks again — and good job with the sleuthing! : )

  • I’m not sure I completely follow you but I think I get the gist. What I was trying to get across in the article is that nobody is authentic. You admit this yourself. And yet we keep “demanding” it of others on the social web. That’s not right and that’s not honest. It’s not even desirable or necessary. Just wanted to emphasize the point I was trying to make. Thanks very much for the interesting comment!

  • Still, it creates a lot of personal dissonance. I don’t like being incongruent. But the psychology and sociology of the social web breeds incongruency.

  • Ha! I’ll take it. Thanks Philip!

  • So your logic is: Disagreement is negative. Negative is a downer. If you are a downer you’re an ass. So, fake being positive so you won’t be an ass. Not sure I’m with you on that. (At the risk of being an ass!) : )

    Thanks for commenting and the dissenting view.

  • Good point Jeff.

  • Mark, you and I have talked before about the social web’s “economy of favors.” I suspect that some of the positive sentiment around the speech was genuine, some sycophantic, and some probably stemmed from the fear of “social retribution.” We’ve both seen what happens when someone publicly attacks a popular “A-Lister:” it’s like Lord of the Flies out there.

    I know this guy who wrote a book on Influence, see–I suspect he knows what was going on here. Had I been there, I wouldn’t have said a thing, for two reasons–and both of them “authentic” to who I am. First, I don’t attack people, I challenge ideas. Second, I have no desire to tank my Twitter account by people attacking me back. That’s the hard reality. My Twitter account is an asset. How I am promoted, ignored, or assaulted by others is the currency of that asset. I’m sure I could “invest” that currency in other ways that would vault me to the follower levels that some A-listers have, but I don’t, and I don’t judge their choices.

    In the end, though, we are all authentic. We all do exactly what we do because of who we are. If we are measured, we are measured. If we are sycophantic, we are sycophantic. And if we are jerks…well, then, we are jerks.

    Great post, and even better comments.

  • Anonymous

    Staying quiet doesn’t display a lack of authenticity, but giving false praise does. Your friend who “gushed” over the presentation should have taken her own advice: ”
    I guess I think that if you don’t have anything good to say, why say anything at all” Saying something positive when you don’t mean it is as inauthentic as it comes.

  • I think the problem here is not authenticity, but the fear of being critical. And it is also a very North American way of dealing with things. We are scared of hurting others, so instead of offering constructive criticism that will help everyone, we had rather praise them.

    When I don’t like something, I say it, but in a way that everyone will be able to take away from. I would never judge or criticize bluntly. Otherwise, what’s the point? Would we praise a restaurant with awful service or a plumber who breaks your kitchen sink? Of course not! So, why should we praise someone who is “famous” and doesn’t deliver? We have to learn to be constructive. Even the pros make mistakes.

  • You can critique without being constantly being negative.What if a film reviewer or resturant critique gave everything a negative review? Would that be practical or helpful to anyone?

  • Oh I get what you’re saying now. Thanks for the clarification!

  • If your online persona is one of being an ass, then it would be authentic to say exactly what you thought about the presenter. If your online persona is one of being honest to a fault then it would also be authentic to tweet/post exactly what you thought of the presenter.

    If on the other hand your online persona is one of giving the best possible information without attacking any others in the industry while still supporting those who actually teach you something and those who putting on the conferences that are advancing your industry, then just saying you are AT so and so’s talk at the GREAT conference put on by XYZ is being authentic.

    It depends on your persona.

    Jason’s persona has not been to attack others in the industry, so to start attacking others would have been out of character for him. And for most who comment here.

    That is why I believe it would have been more authentic for him, and for me, to simply say “I am at the great conference put on by XYZ listening to So and So speak”

  • Anonymous

    Great post. I’ve worked in different countries. I think it is hardest to be authentic in the US because the least negative thing said openly is looked upon as aggressive and unsophisticated. It is somehow impossible for Americans to understand that one can criticize the project or plan without meaning it as a wholesale denigration of their abilities or self. Everything has to be tactful and politically correct, overly so, in my opinion, because it wastes a lot of time, prevents true team bonding (because everyone can see that no one is really being honest and this leads to an air of uncertainty and secretiveness) and it induces real decisions to happen opaquely behind the scenes leading to even more uncertainty and lack of trust. I think the word I am looking for is “political”. Everything is “political” rather than “authentic”. Authenticity, day to day, is even looked down upon as unsophisticated.

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  • Hyphen

    Surprised your conference didn’t have “after-action reports”, the sorts of comment sheets you are usually handed out to fill in after a training course.
    For me the biggest thing is that these days “criticism” simply means negative comments. Maybe we need to substitute “critique”, and lean towards a “Likes Best / Next Time”(*) set of comments.
    (*)What did I Like Best about what happened; what things could be improved for Next Time.

  • Wonderful, insightful comment Tom. Thanks for sharing your wisdom.

  • Certainly a valid point of view Christy. Thanks.

  • An interesting perspective but I think there is less emotional investment in criticizing an airline or a restaurant than a person. That’s my observation any way. Thanks Cendrine for this thought-provoking comment!

  • Extremely interesting issue here about cultural influences. I’m guessing Japn would be even more extreme, right?

  • I absolutely agree with you, Mark.

  • Mark:

    Interesting. There is a real bias throughout social media toward being positive, supportive and nice. Perhaps because so many of the SM leaders are genuinely nice people like Mark S.

    But sometimes even though I value politeness, I yearn for the “unlike” button or the savage critique…

    Maybe the well known bias to the positive explains why social media influence seems so weak.

    – Gary

  • Carole Mahoney

    Interesting observations. Whenever I present at an event, I end with a few questions. What did you expect to learn? What was your ah-ha moment? What is the first thing you will do as a result? If small enough, I’ll hand out index cards (not everyone is twitter-literate.) if you are really looking to add value, help others learn and do, aren’t these the basics? I’d rather have hecklers than silence. At the very least I can learn and do better myself.

  • I was hard on you, and sorry about that, but it is so difficult to watch the bs, and to watch people use it to lose a business. (that type of bs that you referred to). After some contemplation, it does not really seem to be related to authenticity – I believe authenticity to be a personal thing, and not a concept that others can score. What you are referring to might be just a flow of bad advice. I believe that people practice authenticity, but that it is a personal practice.
    In the biz where I learned to spot bs as quickly as possible, it was not allowed and not ethical to call it out, with name attached, so I am hypocritic in expecting that to happen on the web with your business. There was a solution, if one truly cares about the people they are representing and selling to and teaching/influencing.
    The solution was to offer them a very detailed check list, to-do list, reference list, whatever, which spelled out thoughtfully and carefully (unbiased) ways to confirm and verify if the person giving them information, advice, and/or a service/relationship that involved payment or business investment….was legit. You simply offered them a tool to work through on their own to verify. It involved checking references (not just the ones they hand you)…verifying sales numbers (that might be difficult in your biz)…asking for complete bio/resume, and this should go back for years…and much more.
    a step further, and I would give them a Q/A style checklist of instances where what appears to be “impressive” numbers are actually manipulated – brief example, if they are trying to impress with huge client list, that is great, however, do the math, and calculate how many hours they will be able to give you personal assistance, so in that case, a brag about a huge client list, would actually not meet mosts needs. Just stuff like that, as it applies to your business. Doing that, means that no one has to be the bad guy or break an ethic code, it is just constant education/awareness. I don’t recall seeing that type of verification stressed in the sea of social media info.

  • Very interesting observation Gary. A bit of negativity adds credibility, huh?

  • Well said Carole. Thanks for commenting,.

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  • I cringe at some events when the group think takes everything that is said as gospel and no one challenges statements that are often inaccurate or just wrong. Watching a conference on a hashtag can also be very problematic because you might not be getting the context that a quote or statement was made in and can appear really out of touch.

    I’ve asked people to explain something that I didn’t understand through a tweet and have received some very good responses that cleared it up. I’ve also received the troll come back.

    Negative or rude comments / criticsm are abundant on line about every topic. Constructive, helpful and beneficial criticsm or questions van be posed without being negative or rude.

    In the end, one of the loudest messages that can be said are the ones that are not said. If a conference is happening and nothing is being said about it, or a particular speaker, that probably tells the biggest story.

  • Kelly Burroughs

    Hi! Really interesting topic, and lots of great comments that really got me thinking about these types of experiences and the idea of authenticity.

    So many different factors in the situation described and I kept wondering what I would have done and it’s a really tough call. Ultimately, for me, I think there is a range of tolerance and a difference between speaking/twittering up against content that is being presented I disagree with and speaking/twittering up against offensive conduct that I disagree with and goes against my values (i.e sexism, racism, etc.) If a presentation actually strikes that deep of a chord with people they are willing to walk out, and consider themselves offended, then it concerns me that nobody actually would speak up and say something publicly against it. Isn’t that how change is initiated? It seems like someone should make him accountable for what he says and does—sounds like nobody had thus far, which is possibly why he kept getting invited to speak at conferences.

    On the topic of authenticity, I think to achieve it we need to establish transparency and alignment between how we feel, think and then communicate. Unfortunately, I think, most of us are naturally concerned with what others think, and what the negative/worst case scenario outcomes will be–and then because of that, a gap is created between what we are genuinely thinking/feeling and what we conciously choose to communicate (via words, silence, gestures, or otherwise). And if we choose to communicate something other than what we feel, I don’t think we can say that is unadulterated and authentic, I think we can only say it’s masked and non-authentic. To be truly authentic, I think we need that alignment between thinking and communicating when we are in the moment —irrespective of what other people think, and irrespective of what the resulting consequences will be. But on the other hand, the reality is there are consequences to speaking out in a public way and it’s a real challenge to always be 100% authentic. And maybe that just is what it is, and as long as we weigh the trade-offs, and our resulting decision doesn’t toss us into a constant state of internal conflict, that is okay.

    Whew! Okay, this response got crazy long – but anyways, interesting
    topic and thanks for sharing. And I noticed the blog is from almost a year ago now, so as I was reading I was wondering if since the blog you had run into any similar situations and if so, if you approached it any differently or the same…


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