Matthew T Grant


Tall Guy. Glasses.

The Irony of Authenticity and the Authenticity of Irony

authenticity and social mediaSeems like nowadays, authentic is the thing to be.

Mitch Joel calls authenticity, “the cost of admission” in the Web 2.0 world, though he warns: “Being authentic isn’t always good. Let me correct that, being authentic is always good, but the output of being authentic [ie, revealing your flaws, shortcomings, and “warts” – Matt] is sometimes pretty ugly.”

HubSpot TV called the “marketing takeaway” of a notorious scandal involving a company paying for positive online reviews: “Be authentic. If not, you will get caught.”

When CC Chapman was among the Twitterati recently profiled by the Boston Globe, one of his Facebook friends asked, “Ever wondered why you have such a following?” He responded, “I wonder it all the time actually. I asked once and the general theme in the answers was my honest approach between life, family and work when it came to sharing things.” To which another friend replied, “Exactly right CC. You don’t try to be someone you’re not. It’s that authenticity that attracts people.”

Among the first to identify this flight to authenticity were James H. Gilmore & B. Joseph Pine II, who wrote Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want (2007). What notably separates them from contemporary partisans of authenticity is that their take is tinged with irony, an irony most evident in their promise to define “how companies can render their offerings as “really real.”’

This irony is refreshing because invocations of authenticity regularly fail to acknowledge or appreciate what is inherently contradictory about the concept. Said failure begins with the mistaken equation of authenticity and honesty (see above). Honesty may be a characteristic of an individual, but it is not a characteristic of authenticity. For example, an authentically honest person is being “authentic” when she is being honest, but an authentically devious person is being just as authentic when he is lying.

Similarly, we don’t call a painting an “authentic Rembrandt” because it is honest; we call it authentic because it was really painted by Rembrandt, unlike the forgery which only looks like it was painted by him. In other words, we call it authentic because it is what it seems to be. Herein lies the essential contradiction of authenticity: Authenticity isn’t about being real; authenticity is about really being what you seem to be.

The centrality of “seeming” to authenticity becomes even more clear when we call a person “authentic.” Such a designation usually means, “the way this person acts transparently or guilelessly reflects who they really are.” Because our sense of their authenticity depends on an assessment a person’s behavior, we should pay special attention to the fact that authenticity is performed; as paradoxical as it may sound, authenticity is an “act,” in the theatrical sense. (Which is why I always say, “Be yourself. It’s the perfect disguise.”)

The bigger problem though, is that our notion of authenticity assumes we really know who someone is and likewise the imperative to “be authentic” assumes we know who we really are.

Our identity, “who we really are,” is always contingent, provisional, and changing. It is an amalgam of who we want to be, who we mean to be, who we’re supposed to be, who we have to be, and who we are in spite of ourselves. Moreover, no matter how much we’d like to think so, we are not the authority on who we really are since it includes much that cannot be known by us. Indeed, and again paradoxically, we can’t know anything about ourselves without assuming the perspective of another, that is by identifying with someone else and precisely NOT being ourselves.

Just as one must consult an expert to determine the authenticity of a treasured heirloom – it can’t speak for itself – we can’t call ourselves “authentic;” that is for others to decide. At best, and this is the irony, we can always only strive to “seem” authentic. True authenticity calls for acknowledging that “who you are” is an open question and, moreover, a collaborative work in progress.

In the end, we must distance ourselves from our claims or pretensions to authenticity. We must call it into question and even suggest, especially to ourselves, that it may just be a ego-driven pose. (Hey, it just may be!) This distancing, implicitly critical and potentially mocking (or at least deprecating), is the classic stance of irony. And though the dodginess of irony (“did he mean that or didn’t he?”) seems to put it at a distinct remove from authenticity (“this is exactly what I think”), it actually mirrors the open-ended, unresolved, and ever-changing “dodginess” of reality itself.

Which is to say that irony, as a posture, an attitude, and as an approach, is more authentic (in the sense of “really being the way reality seems to be”) than honesty, sincerity, openness, or any of the other qualities that pass for such. The tragedy (or irony) is, however, that it will always seems less than authentic due to the all-too-human suspicion of ambiguity, indeterminacy, uncertainty, and, lest we forget, the wily intelligence native to irony and the ironist.

Image Courtesy of Mary Hockenbery.

“Interweb the Rainbow” or the Rise of Aleatoric Design

This was my last official post for Aquent’s Talent Blog, March 4, 2009. I explored some of the implications of aleatoric design on Marketing Profs’ Daily Fix Blog.

Ms. Pistachio was the first to alert me, via Twitter, natch, that Skittles had gone all Social Media on us. Sure as shootin’, the current (March 2, 2009) is a mash-up of social media sites where the name of the colorful and intoxicatingly concentrated jelly-bean-oidal confection appears.

Of course, Skittles, with the aid of, are following in the footsteps of Modernista!, who took their own website in this direction last year. Still, the fact that a consumer brand has emulated a trendy design shop has got everybody talking, including the ever articulate (and strikingly handsome) David Armano, who rightly predicts, I believe, that we’ll see more of this, not less and goes on to link the Skittle move to the emergence of “sponsored conversations.”

But what is this “this” that we’re going to be seeing more of? I think it’s something we could call “aleatoric” design which takes advantage of the fact that web pages, in the end, exist as a set of instructions to be executed by a browser, not a fixed arrangement of text and image (as in the print world). Since these instructions can be linked to dynamic sites themselves (Twitter, YouTube, Wikipedia, etc.), design now becomes the quasi-symphonic arrangement of fluid elements that resist control or even predictability.

Given this tendency, wouldn’t it be better for web designers to have a background in performance, choreography, or musical composition than graphic arts? Isn’t it time we acknowledged that interactive design is NOT graphic design (or that the latter is an increasingly small and incidental component of the former)?

Who is Matthew T. Grant?

Matthew T. Grant has chosen as his tag-line, “Tall Guy. Glasses.” He has done so for several reasons. First of all, he is above average in height for the human male (6′ 7″). Second of all, he wears glasses (I’ve been told that contacts are out due to my astigmatism. If any opthamologists are reading this and believe that I am misinformed, please contact me at

The most important reason for this fairly pedestrian tag-line is that I, Matthew T. Grant, have a variety of interests, several well-developed abilities, and a non-linear career path. I have established and run a corporate training department, directed an array of internal and external communications efforts for a global company, served as a business process consultant, taught at several colleges, and performed in a number of rock bands in San Francisco, Boston, and Ithaca. I received my PhD in German Studies from Cornell University (1993) and wrote my dissertation on mass media and political militancy in West Germany in the 1970s, My bachelor’s degree in German Studies was granted by Stanford University (1985).

As far as my aforementioned abilities are concerned, those that may be of most interest to you as an individual or representative of an organization are as follows. I can write real good (that grammatical incorrectitude was intentional). I’ve been involved in blogging, podcasting, and various online communities for years. I’m an entertaining and informative presenter (that link takes you to the slides for a recent webcast I conducted. To hear the ‘cast itself, go here – it’s free, but requires registration). I am also extremely comfortable hosting large events as well as facilitating small discussion groups.

To put this all another way: I’m skilled at acquiring and comprehending information and then communicating it to people in the way best suited to them. By “information,” I mean just about anything and by “people” I mean just about anyone.

Allow me to illustrate this ability in action. While serving as corporate spokesperson, I enlisted our local field managers to find me speaking engagements by telling them, “I can talk about anything.” The then-manager of our Osaka office took me up on my offer and said he had me scheduled to speak on “business method patents” at a large conference in his native city. I told him I didn’t know anything about that and he responded with, “But you said you could talk about anything.”

Hoisted on my own petard, I delved into the controversy surrounding the patent Amazon received for their “one-click” buying method and gave a presentation to three hundred Japanese business folk calling for greater openness and flexibility with regards to intellectual property in the Web era (you could call my approach anachronistically, “Lessig-esque“). Although the audience seemed more interested in learning how to make money from patents, rather than how not to, nobody said I didn’t know what I was talking about.

So, that’s Matthew T. Grant, in nuce. This blog will now return to its regularly scheduled programming.

What’s My Brand?

tallmatt I’ve got personal branding on the brain these days, and not just thanks to Dan Schawbel. Yesterday, I posted something on MarketingProf’s Daily Fix blog which I intended to be humorous but was not read (by everyone, anyway) as such.

The (to some offending) post, “Matthew T. Grant, SMexpert (TM), Now Accepting Offers,” attempted to parodize the hyperbolic promotional rhetoric of self-proclaimed “social media experts,” which I cleverly dubbed “SMexperts,” but was instead interpreted as a legitimate ad for my services. I was surprised because it included things like, “This guy is electric. He’s on fire. He’s the real deal. He’s a magic man and he’s got the magic hands. Accept no substitutes!” And ended with, “You want some of what Matthew T. Grant is cooking? Then let’s cut to the chase: Money talks and bullshit walks. Make him an offer. At the end of the day, you can’t afford not to.”

Sadly, this kind of self-portrayal is more par-for-the-course than over-the-top on the interwebs. While some did actually LOL, others said that, not knowing me, they weren’t sure how if it were a joke or not. One commenter said for this to work as parody I should have taken it up a couple notches. And one thoughtful soul simply called me “the most pompous ass on the internet.” Well, at least I’m the most something.

In the end, the comment that really got me thinking came from Mr. Lewis Green. My post really rubbed him the wrong way but when I explained my original intentions, he “got it” but then proceeded to ask a most intriguing question, “How does the post help or hurt Matt’s brand?”

Trouble is, I still have a hard time thinking of myself as having or being a brand. I’ve got personality (to spare!) and a certain style (“that is SO Matt!”), but if Coke is the “pause that refreshes,” and Florida orange juice that substance the absence of which on a particular day is akin to an utter lack of sunshine on that selfsame day, what is Matthew T. Grant?

For now, I’m going with, “Matthew T. Grant, the tall guy with glasses.” It might not be super compelling, but at least it’s accurate (see above).