Aug 17, 2010
The Really Real, Totally Authentic Thing
If you don’t have time to blog then don’t. Ghost blogging is inauthentic & the antithesis of everything social. #dontbeafake cc @mitchjoel – Avinash Kaushik
When I was in graduate school, there was a lot of talk about the “death of the author.” Such talk was driven primarily by French, post-structuralist thinkers like Barthes, Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, and Lacan who had an intensely nuanced and complex notion of writing and authorship that tended to highlight the supra-personal in any putatively “personal” utterance or authorial gesture. Steeped in such thinking, I became very skeptical of attempts to say with certainty who the “who” is when we ask, “Who wrote this?”
Barthes et al. were responding to various French philosophical currents of the 20th century but especially, I believe, existentialism. Whereas existentialism had put the individual human being at the center of (an ultimately meaningless) existence, thus hoping to establish a new moral center following the death of God, the post-structuralists chose instead to show that the individual was not the center of anything but, rather, the effect of many things (language, culture, discourse, the unconscious, etc.).
The French were not the first or the only critics to suggest that the individual (sometimes called “the subject”) was epiphenomenal. Freud had certainly pointed in this direction when developing his psycho-analytic theories as had Nietzsche a decade or so before him, Marx a decade or so before that, and Hegel at the very outset of the 19th century. But even these gentlemen were not the first to insist on the essentially contingent nature of individual identity which, in one form or another, can be traced back to the teachings of Buddha and even the Vedic authors before him.
Which is all to say that when I read things like Mitch Joel’s recent blog post on “ghost blogging,” my philosophical buttons get pushed.
Conceding that there may be practical value to ghost blogging (“I get that people Ghost Blog and it works”), Mitch shows that his opposition to it is, more than anything else, a matter of faith. Like a Luther for the Twitterati, he writes, “I believe this one thought (and I will stand by it): corporate Blogs being presented as a personal space to share insights have a predisposed and inherent understanding that the person whose name is on it is the actual author.”
You see, Mitch is less concerned with the value of ghost blogging than he is with values or, as he puts it, “ideals” (“I do think that there are some commonly held ideals within Social Media”) which he also refers to as the “pillars of what makes something ‘social’.” These pillars being, “transparency, openness, honesty, human and real voices (not corporate mumbo jumbo) and a culture that embraces sharing between these real voices.”
In other words, Mitch is a moralist who even indulges in the classic rhetorical move of the moralist, the value-laden leading question: “Why is everyone who defends ghost blogging so afraid to state that ghost blogging’s first act is one of deceit and misdirection?”
The philosopher in me wishes merely to point out that expressions like “actual author,” “real voices,” “human,” “social” and so on are not unproblematic.
What, after all, is an author and how does an author, generally speaking, differ from an “actual” author? What makes a voice “real,” particularly when we are talking about written texts (blogs) where the notion of “voice” itself is metaphorical? What attributes belong to the category “human” and what happens when “humanness” is invoked as an ethical category? Since when is the “social” defined by “honesty, transparency, and openness” rather than by concepts like “convention” or “conflict”? Etc.
I’m not sure that Mitch Joel is interested in the history of philosophy, let alone the history of the “ideals” that he invokes. Indeed, I’m fairly certain that he would dismiss my argument—that, in essence, concepts like authorship, or authenticity for that matter, are over-determined, social constructs which in no way represent uncontested, universal values—as equivocation. I am, after all, a ghost blogger whose work goes undisclosed by my clients. Thus, in the eyes of Mitch Joel, Avinash Kaushik, and others, I’m an aider and abettor of unreconstructed frauds and deceivers.
In my “defense,” and in answer to Mitch’s inherently unanswerable question (shades of “How frequently do you beat your wife?”), I would say that, if I am afraid to state that my first act every morning is one of deceit and misdirection, it is because I fear saying something that I do not consider to be true. Rightly or wrongly, I actually believe that the people whose bloggings I facilitate are the “actual” authors of the posts that I produce. The ideas are theirs, the “voice” is theirs, the blog is theirs, etc.
That being said, on a “human” level I resent the jargon of authenticity which pervades social media. When someone says, in the imperative voice, “Don’t be a fake,” I bristle. Why? Because I find the division of human actions into “real” and “fake” itself dehumanizing. Where does the notion of “authenticity” come from anyway? It is a term of trade driven by the desire to differentiate the genuine from the counterfeit so that an item can be assigned a monetary value. “Authentically human” is just another way of saying “Genuine leather.”
When we demand that humans be “authentic,” or criticize them for being fake, it’s because we have reduced them to the status of commodities. In fact, I believe that the social media, rather than humanizing marketing, as Mitch Joel and others have long hoped, have in fact completed the total colonization of human thought and affect by market forces.
Given the absolute assimilation of our lives by the new media, down to the most trivial whims (“I just ate a donut covered in bacon!” “I hate Justin Bieber”), isn’t it possible that the only way to hang on to our humanity is through masks, personae, and “ghosts”?
Or, in the immortal words of Robert Plant, “When you fake it, baby, please, fake it right.”
Image Source: Nick Wheeler.
I studied philosophy and I understand both the semantic and morals of which you write.
The one part that struck me though was this: “Rightly or wrongly, I actually believe that the people whose bloggings I facilitate are the ‘actual’ authors of the posts that I produce. The ideas are theirs, the ‘voice’ is theirs, the blog is theirs, etc.”
Regardless of my moral stance or the ideals I shared (and how you feel about them), I’m grappling with a few questions:
1. If it’s theirs, why are you writing it?
2. If you are writing it, why not say you wrote it?
3. How would you feel if after a dinner, I turned to you and said, “BTW, the name I gave you? That’s not me. Oh, and the topics we discussed? Not mine. Someone gave them to me.” Do those encounters usually end up producing the best relationships?
Thanks for the quick response, Mitch.
As far as questions 1 and 2 are concerned, I guess it depends on what you mean by “writing.” Is this really about the physical act of typing? I thought we were talking about authorship, which involves both the organization of language and ideas and publicly taking ownership of them.
As far as question 3 goes, I don’t believe that analogy is apt at all. But if ghost bloggers give people fake names and ideas to pass off as their own, maybe I’m not a ghost blogger after all. That’s just not how it goes down with my clients.
My real beef, and its not just with you, sir, concerns the “authenticity imperative” that seems to prevail in the discourse around social media. Most people who invoke “authenticity” as a value, usually one that will help differentiate you in the marketplace of ideas, don’t seem to have thought the concept through or realize that “authentic” utterances themselves have been carefully, albeit sometimes unconsciously, crafted out of all the things a person could possibly say. Nothing we say is pure, uncut, genuine. There’s always something else behind it.
The same is true, I believe, of “openness,” “transparency,” and “honesty.” Verily these are ideals because they do not exist in human society in unadulterated form.
Perhaps, though, I am the real moralist, because I do not believe anyone is justified in pointing out the fakery of others. Thus when you or Avinash or anyone else start holding people to a particular moral standard: “A blog is THIS. Writing blogs should happen in THIS way. If you do it THAT way you are doing something wrong.” – it rankles.
You do have an evangelical streak in you, Mitch Joel, and every time I’ve seen you speak I think it’s the one element that’s rubbed me the wrong way. This may be why I was compelled to respond to your post in the way I did. I think your stuff is strong when you are saying, “This is a cool way to do things.” Less so when you say, “If this is what you’re doing, you suck.”
How is seeing something as a cool way to do things and then seeing something as uncool way to do things any different?
I find that very confusing.
Throughout the entire post, my comment was – continually – that my thoughts on ghost blogging were an opinion/feeling – not a hard and fast rule. It was how something (in this case, ghost blogging) makes me feel.
I also don’t understand your definition of “fake” here. If someone’s name is on a Blog and they are not the person writing it, that seems pretty fake to me at the most basic level.
Lastly, I love my evangelical streak. I like dreaming and dreaming with others because I do think that these channels can re-invigorate marketing.
seeing things as cool = upbeat, inspiring message /// saying that things suck = can be a bring down but can also have humor value
I understood that you were expressing your feelings (feelings of being deceived, for example), but you were also expressing an ethos – a prescriptive standard of behavior – which I thought included some judgment.
I don’t think I defined “fake” but I really only consider blogs fake when they are completely feed-driven and apparently run by robots. If CEO John Doe has a blog called “CEO John Doe’s Blog,” and CEO John Doe has some involvement with it and approves what is posted on it, I would not consider it fake. The thing is that when I read a blog I never think about whether or not it was written or edited or proofread by the by-lined author (for the blogs I read, I usually don’t recognize the name anyway). By the same token, whenever I read anything “written” by a CEO of a company of any size I assume that someone else either wrote it or helped write it. This isn’t merely cynicism. If someone is speaking as CEO they are, to a certain extent, speaking as a corporate function, not just a person. I expect them to have support in carrying out that function.
Now if CEO John Doe had a personal blog where he mainly wrote about golf, fly fishing, and his hometown and he paid someone else to write it for him, I would think that was a little weird but I’m not really sure I would care. If I had gotten emotionally involved in what he was saying and thought we were really connecting through comments or whatever and then it turned out I was interacting with a surrogate the whole time, it would be a drag, I admit
Finally: evangelism. I appreciate your evangelical streak as well, but mainly when its on the upswing – “Isn’t this cool! This changes everything!” – and not so much when the underlying message seems to be, “If you aren’t being awesome, you suck. Why do you decide to suck instead of be awesome?” Godin kind of does the same thing and, frankly, audiences seem to respond so maybe I’m just overly sensitive. To me the rhetoric of realizing your potential and “being all you can be” reflects a capitalist urge to exploit things to the point of exhaustion and extinction. I think it can be healthy to leave some potential unrealized, in other words. But that’s just me.
At the same time, the problem I brought up at the end of my post is reflected in your final words “these channels can re-invigorate marketing.” I’m an old hippy and have never been able to shake the feeling that business-stuff is always already coopted, manipulative, and “inauthentic.” If the best thing that comes of social media is an improvement of marketing effectiveness, then social media is just another part of the bummer, man.
In my own experience, the social media have been the most rewarding when they facilitated personal connections that really had nothing to do with money (I include this interaction in that category).
Good to hear as my one line about Social Media (and what makes it so special) is: “real interactions between real human beings.” Even when you both don’t totally agree with one another 😉
[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Kristen M Jones, Matthew T. Grant. Matthew T. Grant said: Thoughts on authenticity, ghost blogging, social media, @mitchjoel, etc. http://bit.ly/d2MYqJ – Am I right or just ranting? […]
Matt you not only seem to understand the aporia of the ‘jargon of authenticity’ more thoroughly and with more granularity than Mr. Joel, you also seem to understand the corporate world better. This was not, in my opinion, a ‘real interaction.’ It was a TKO. And that is something to get evangelical or even angelical about…
Thanks for the comment, Daniel.
First of all, I have no doubts about Mitch’s business savvy or comprehension of the corporate world – he’s a very smart and accomplished marketer.
Second of all, I want to acknowledge that what he’s on about is really the (seeming) promise of social media: that it won’t just be “business as usual” in corporate communication. In the past, it was accepted that when companies and their representatives spoke, you were getting a packaged and processed line. The velocity and informal nature of communication via Twitter, blogs, Facebook, etc. have made such packaging and processing impractical, on the one hand, and have raised the “Be Real” bar on the other.
His original post was an expression of disappointment that, as it turns out, the social media function not as a whole new way of doing things but as “just” one more element in the corporate communication toolbox. You may call that “naive” or “idealistic,” but it’s important to remember that at ground his perspective is based on something like “hope.”
I am for hope, especially when written about by Ernst Bloch. I do feel that my input above was a bit “hasty,” as the Ents say. From this further distance in a remote location of the future, I see that the principle of hope is evident in the initial post – in the guise, as you keenly surmise, of its sometime flip-side signifier ‘disappointment’ – and generally tangible in discussions such as these. Agree to disagree and all that… That said, I just saw Syriana again and am struck by the line, perhaps tangential to this thread or even mildly irrelevant, “You’re innocent until investigated.” Corporations seem to have taken this to heart, most glaringly banks it would seem, though often marketing teams as well, looking for the right message at the right time, regardless of truth-value or authorial veracity – themselves questioned and questionable for some time now in literary and philosophical speculation. Ghostwriting that appears under the name of the Name could also sadly be innocent until investigated. So perhaps as a part of hope we need to keep investigating, in the spirit, say, of Kafka’s Report to an Academy, Chris Marker’s A Grin Without a Cat or Burroughs’ Exterminator.
I’m all for investigations in the spirit of hope.
Also, thanks for revisiting this post and your own comment with an eye informed by the wisdom of the future.