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Social Media: A Question of Credibility

by Frank Strong

Social media a question of credibility

The comments were caustic.

The sort of knock-down, drag-out online fights that resulted in exchanges lasting for days.  These things were said over an old-fashioned online bulletin board that most people wouldn’t say to their arch-nemesis, let alone say to literal neighbors in the same community.

And yet they continued. The comments from one handle in particular were especially abrasive. They also had a distinct characteristic: overly-authoritative, absolute, sesquipedalian and accented with legalistic tone; the sort more like someone trying to sound like a lawyer, than someone who is actually practicing law.

Rarely did anyone in the online community find common ground with the comments stemming from one particular user-handle…until one day, a new handle appeared. These two accounts were best of friends, and often teamed up to beat down anyone who dared post a comment of dissent.

But I couldn’t get past one curious observation: the comments from these two different handles seemed to be suspiciously similar: it was almost as if the comments from each handle were written by the same person…

* * *

Fake product reviews aimed to game the system are clearly not authentic and as Brian Solis points out, there’s a good chance violators of social norms online are likely to be discovered. While there’s almost certainly truth in those words of wisdom, I wonder — at the risk of coming dangerously close to social media sacrilege — if that overlooks an emerging question.

Every incident like this leaves scar tissue that might heal well enough, with proper time and care, but as many athletes learn, often painfully, an old injury leaves them more prone to future injury. How many incidents like fake product reviews have to be exposed before a community begins to have misgivings?

The question is not without precedent — as consumers become familiar with new trends and grow in sophistication — they also grow wary. For example, Chris Anderson writes in his book, FREE, “At the beginning of the Twentieth Century, Free re-emerged along with the new packaged goods industry. With the rise of brands, advertising and national distribution, Free became a sales gimmick.”

Some critics might point out there is a similar danger for social media. I do not believe social media is a fad, but the question of fake product reviews, and fake user handles, and generally any social media post absent authenticity, is bound to bring an evolution. It’s a good time to reflect and respect the positive attributes of social media’s ancestral editorial departments: objectivity, journalistic caution and, well, neatly defined boundaries, notwithstanding.

Certainly some social media users will have more credibility than others — almost a self-made level of authentication that Solis’ words brought to my mind. But what about the concept of an “authenticated user” — someone vetted and verified by a trusted third-party?

There are good precedents for this concept too. This is especially true in financial transactions like PayPal’s “get verified” program or eBay’s Feedback Forum. Perhaps more closely related to social media is online dating. MillionaireMatch.com for example, requires users to certify their income level by submitting a copy of their tax return. Twitter too has had it’s own imposter troubles — and to the detriment of it’s community.

I don’t pretend to have an answer, let alone the answer — perhaps there’s a term sheet in here for some forward thinking entrepreneur — but indeed it’s demonstration enough that we do live in interesting times.

* * *

One factor an a faker on social media has going against them is that when you are making the ground truth up on the fly, it’s becomes increasingly difficult to remember the storytelling as the discussion evolves. This was the case for the abrasive commenter in the introductory anecdote. That individual was eventually caught with two handles by a careful observer and discredited within the online community.

Unfortunately the damage had already been done. The community that once turned to the online bulletin board as a source for information sharing about local happenings grew weary of the domineering, endless rants and the overall disingenuous nature of the posts. While it once enjoyed a dramatic growth rate in new users — to the great enthusiasm of it’s members — sadly today, the board is idly wasting, lost in cyberspace.

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