Managing your online identity (Or: Why I unfollowed you)

August 26, 2009

“Authenticity” is a huge buzzword these days, mostly amongst the so-called social media evangelists, who promise to help companies manage their brand identities on Twitter and Facebook. If you’re lucky, you may even get the chance to see one of these evangelists speak, and they’ll tell you how important social media is in building your brand.

First, I want to dispense quickly with that claim: You don’t need social media to build your brand. And before any company throws its eggs into that basket, it must consider that nearly every dominant brand in the world was built before today’s social media was conceived.  Twitter and Facebook can be tools to communicate and converse with the public. Sure, they can help your brand. But you don’t need to pay a social media expert to teach you how to do it or, God forbid, to do it for you.

I don’t use Twitter to talk about what I had for lunch. Nor am I necessarily trying to build a brand. Primarily, I use Twitter as a news feed, and though I follow acquaintances, I most often follow news organizations and thought leaders, so I can get headlines and ideas. I can keep up with trends and innovations. My own Twitter posts are often retweets of things I find interesting, links to things I’ve stumbled on, and the occasional reply to something interesting I’ve read.

Do you know what that is? Authenticity.

Let’s get one thing straight: Authenticity isn’t pretending to be the real thing; it is the real thing. So when the social media moguls tell you how to be authentic or how to create an authentic voice for your brand, understand from the get-go that the very act of trying to be authentic ruins authenticity.  No question about that at all.

Is authenticity a good thing? Let me give you a couple of examples, because the answer isn’t all that simple.

This week I stopped following two of the most annoying Twitterers I’ve ever willingly followed: Jennifer Bull and Lisa Barone. Bull started following me, so I checked out her stream. She seemed to have some interesting posts, so I followed back. In the ensuing days,  I noticed my home page filling up with Bull’s posts. I clicked through a few of them, and found they all went to her blog. And several times, she posted links to the same blog post, using different words to draw attention. And several times a day she’d send out links to old posts on her blog. Clearly, Jennifer Bull is not providing an authentic experience. She’s merely stuffing Twitter with self-promotion. Sorry. You’re unfollowed.

I don’t remember how I found Lisa Barone. But she bills herself as “Co-Founder (sic) and Chief Branding Officer (sic) of Outspoken Media, Inc. Lisa has been involved in the SEO community since 2006 and is widely known for her honest industry observations, her inability to not say exactly what she’s thinking, and her excessive on-the-clock Twittering…”

She comes from nearby Troy, NY, so I thought maybe she knew what she was talking about. Turns out, what I found was a stream of curse words and inappropriate, juvenile commentary. Like these gems:

“.@sugarrae and I are about to cut a bitch. Srsly. Fucking overprotective mothers. Bet she mommyblogs too. #ireland


“Dear liver, I am so incredibly sorry. I promise, nothing but water once I return. Assuming, we’re still alive. Love, Lisa #ireland

This is a business person? Someone who claims she “saves brands?” From her Twitter feed, I wonder what exactly I’m supposed to think about her brand. Perhaps that she’s drunken, prone to violence, condescending and intolerant of “mommybloggers?”

Clearly, Lisa Barone is an example of taking authenticity too far. If there’s an upside to what she posts, it’s this: I will never hire her to do anything. Ever. If she can’t manage her own identity online, I will never trust her to manage mine.

So the straight answer is this: If you’re faking it on social media, people will know. Say what you think, but don’t forget that showing disrespect and offering too much information isn’t good for anyone. If your company wants to Twitter, be sure that the person tweeting for you is responsible, cordial, respectful and stays on message. It’s nice to give shoutouts to those who mention your brand. It’s even better when there’s a personality behind the whole endeavor (see @comcastbonnie), but if the person doing the tweeting is abrasive, unpleasant and unprofessional, the last thing in the world you want is “authenticity.”

UPDATE: I love when people say I’m wrong, and then prove me so very right. Lisa Barone was kind and measured enough to respond to my post below, and I truly appreciate that. Her business partner, Rae Hoffman, on the other hand, got a tad angry. From her Twitter feed:

@LisaBarone fuck em… and he’s wrong – it’s not that he’d never hire US. It’s that WE would never work with HIM

@sugarrae He has every right to hold that opinion. I just don’t agree. Hopefully he’ll approve my comment.

@LisaBarone oh, he does… and I have every right to think he is a superficial douche because of it

@sugarrae you’re such a bully. :p

@LisaBarone I’m not a bully babe, I’m a realist and I just don’t give a fuck… he can chase <shiny object> the pretty flags

The thing I absolutely love about Rae’s posts is not the juvenile tough-guy act, but the assertion that her company wouldn’t work with me, if I were willing to pay. The fact is that I stated quite clearly above that they will never get a chance to turn down my business because I won’t offer it to them.

I want to be absolutely fair to Lisa Barone here: The above posts were between Rae to Lisa in Twitter conversation. Lisa’s responses were quite tame and measured. She truly handled my criticism the way a professional would. I can only thank Rae for her “authenticity.”

My point stands.