Economics of Authenticity on Twitter

BerealI’m on Twitter all the time; it’s central to how I learn about discussions taking place about Deep Packet Inspection, a good way of finding privacy-folk from around the world, and lets me feel semi-socialized even though I’m somewhat reclusive. When I use the social networking service, I intersperse bits of ‘me’ (e.g. This wine sucks!) beside news articles I’ve found and believe would be useful to my colleagues, and add in some (attempts at) humor. In this sense, I try to make my Twitter feed feel ‘authentic’, meaning that it is reasonably reflective of how I want to present myself in digital spaces. Further, that presentation resonates (to varying extents) with how I behave in the flesh.

When you hear social-media enthusiasts talk about their media environment, authenticity (i.e. not pretending to be someone/something you’re really, absolutely, not) is the key thing to aim for. Ignoring the amusing Heideggerian implications of this use of authenticity (“How very They!), I think that we can take this to mean that there is a ‘currency’ in social media called ‘authenticity’. There are varying ways of gauging this currency.

  • On Facebook, the Whopper Sacrifice identified the authenticity of the relationships between friends. In effect, it measured whether or not a friendship was ‘strong enough’ to be kept in the face of a free burger, and also actually performed a valuation of Facebook by putting dollar values to links between friends.
  • On Twitter, various companies and performers are finding interesting ways of monetizing the service. Most interesting, for me right now, is how companies will give Twitter users free goods if they Tweet some message or another.

It is Twitter that I want to spend just a few minutes thinking about. In this social networking space, authenticity is ‘measured’ through the willingness to self-craft/authenticate messages. Where individuals are found to not be writing their own messages then they are (implicitly or explicitly) adding their weight to whatever message they are Tweeting on behalf of other parties (e.g. a commercial) or forwarding through their own network (e.g. a ReTweet). When an individual is developing an online reputation, however, how do we think about the economics of authenticity? Is it worth a certain amount of (ether-like) ‘reputation’ to receive some product, which is often digital and thus costs the company providing it (effectively) nothing?

I ran into this last night (which motivated this post), where a band that I’ve recently found demanded that I Tweet some advertising on their behalf before I could download a new music video for their forthcoming album. I didn’t comply, and found an alternate way of getting the video, and in fact now refuse to promote the band. This isn’t because I dislike the band (I think they’re doing interesting and recombinant work) or the video (it matched the diverse and eclectic audio I’ve come to expect from the band), but because I resent being put in a situation where receiving a freely hosted good requires me to first, blindly, lend my reputational-weight to their product. I don’t like software that I can’t try before buying, and the same goes for cultural products.In effect, I found the cost of the (economically) free transaction to access a music video be too high when contrasted against my perceived valuation of authenticity. Authenticity ‘costs’ were too high compared to the economic costs.

This said, recent advertising efforts that required individuals to tweet particular messages to receive fixed products, such as new MacBook Pros, raced across Twitter and become trending topics. This certainly suggests that my own approach/uses for Twitter diverge from many others on Twitter (though I’ll note that I rarely see ad-Tweets from people I follow). I’d be curious to read whether or not my more ‘conservative’ approaches to online reputation and Twitter stem from the duration of time that individuals are on the service, ‘types’ of user (e.g. for fun, professional networking, broadcast, etc), or some other categorization schema. Such a distinction in user-types could be subsequently used to develop alternate economies of authenticity, where I would presume that ‘conservative’ users like myself who also have a large follower base (which I do not have) would have more to ‘lose’ in trading authenticity for product than a ‘fun’ user with a similarly large follower-base.

While Anderson has talked about the economics on Free as it pertains to social networking, I think that the generalization of all users as identical (e.g. all friend relationships on Facebook can be seen as equivalent to each other, in dollars and cents terms) is problematic and limits an accurate valuation of social networking environments. I think that real valuation needs to understand the variations in the economics of authenticity to determine effective whole-scale monetization strategies. Such a comprehensive understanding demands a genuine investigation into the distinctions in user-types to base subsequent monetization and ad-driven models on; lumping all users into the same category will leave social marketers with an overly opaque and inaccurate valuation of online digital relationships. They are, of course, ‘free’ to adopt overly simplistic economic models, but I expect that they do this at their peril when thinking of the long-term implications of adopting simplistic versus nuanced models.