This entry arises out of a session I went to on Thursday, Aug. 7, 2008 at Social Media Camp NYC which was held at the Sun Microsystems offices in Manhattan. To give some background for those who are unfamiliar with it, Social Media Camp is a form of Bar Camp. Bar Camp, according to its wiki is
an ad-hoc gathering born from the desire for people to share and learn in an open environment. It is an intense event with discussions, demos and interaction from participants.This looks like the standard definition for any professional gathering but the Bar Camp philosophy is to be spontaneous and participatory. While some campers might submit an idea for a session ahead of time, at a Bar Camp large pieces of paper are put on the walls with timelines for each breakout room so people can pencil in sessions they'd like to offer which can either be formal (Powerpoint talks) or informal (putting forth an idea for discussion). When they first started in 2005, Bar Camps focused solely on technology issues but form has been expanded to other areas, in this case, social media.
A lot could be said about the success or failure of this camp but I'd just like to talk about one half hour session that was offered on "Persona Blogging". The presenter, a 25 year old woman I'll call "R", runs 10 different blogs in which she presents herself as different people, ranging from a young woman much like herself to a middle-aged housewife in New Jersey to a gay clothing designer in Miami. She is given a demographic profile by her employer of their target audience and she assumes that identity when she writes and interacts with blog readers. One of her employers actually initiated this Social Media Camp session and asked her to lead it because he was interested in having a discussion about the ethics of doing persona blogging.
R barely got out an explanation of what she did for a living when she was faced with a barrage of questions, most of them critical or even hostile. My own question stated that I could understand her portraying a semi-fictional character (like Betty Crocker or Dear Abby) but I think she gets in dangerous territory when she starts creating relationships with readers under a false identity. People, women & men, can get emotionally invested in online relationships especially when the blogger publicly acknowledges them in some way. It can easily happen!
What was more interesting though than my personal opinion was the reaction the persenter received from the crowd. It was an incredibly heated, animated discussion but it wasn't really a discussion because participants just fired questions at R and each other without any real dialog occurring. All order was lost and the session devolved into mini-conversations occurring at tables or other areas of the room.
Clearly, she had touched a nerve which I believe is the issue of trust and authenticity in online relationships. R presented herself as someone who plays a role online and I think many in attendance were outraged because it raises the possibility that their own online relationships could be based on nothing but fabrications. A deceitful person can get away with pretending they are anyone online until some overly diligent person "outs" them.
In order to extend our social networks (whether personally or professionally) we have to trust that the people we meet online are who they say they are. Several audience members asserted that nowadays, people are aware that users online aren't necessarily being honest but I doubt that many individuals could be active networkers while maintaining a consistent attitude of skepticism towards everyone they encounter. You would basically not admit anyone to your Facebook page or block on Twitter anyone you didn't personally know which defeats the purpose of online social networking which is to reach beyond the physical boundaries of day-to-day work, family, friends & neighborhood social circles.
Having someone intentionally misrepresenting themselves on a blog for commercial purposes is different than a simple troll or bot because over a series of blog posts, the readers feel like they get to know this person. Faced with the fact that this relationship could be phony can cause one to question the integrity of other relationships or figures online which puts a cloud over the entire social experience.
R admitted that what she was really doing was a form of acting but we know that actors aren't their characters. Performance art is subversive because in some pieces one is not sure if the person is a performer or actually the character they are portraying. And this uncertainty makes most people uneasy because it introduces a great deal of ambiguity when we depend on being able to rely on our senses & experiences to differentiate what is real from what is false. We know that advertising is trying to sell us something but we also know an ad when we see it or we hope to be able to distinguish staged advertising from genuine personal interaction.
R's introduction of a "simple" question, "What do you think about the ethics of 'persona blogging'?" was engaging because it hit at the heart of the participants' field of interest, social media. Audience skepticism in online networks and advertising would likely doom any effort made by a marketing or media company. A company wants its audience to trust that it is who it says it is and will do what it says it will do or it will probably not succeed. R pointed at how vulnerable this trust when there is a third party who plays by different rules and I think this is what set the audience off.
While I completely disagree with the deceit of persona blogging, I must say that I had a really great 10 minute conversation with R and her employer after the presentation. I think they are playing with fire (potential backlash if R is outed) but I applaud their bravery for raising the question and facing the heat from the audience. Ethical issues always touch a nerve and are rarely easy to answer. That's also what makes them essential topics of discussion.