About a million years ago, I was a campus politico. An engaged, sometimes enraged, college citizen out to change the world or at least change the way we buy used text books. That's me on the right, watching a Take Back the Night event from the auditorium stairs and otherwise taking myself too seriously.
My junior year, I found myself running for student senate president with a way-too-intentionally-diverse ticket of fellow travelers, called (embarrassingly): N.A.T.E. or new activism toward empowerment.
(I know. It's melodramatic tripe. But stick with me.)
As I remember it, we were set to win. What I can't quite remember is if that was us believing our anecdotal internal polls or real momentum against an entrenched group of incumbents.
(If I'm going to be melodramatic, I see no reason not to embrace it wholeheartedly.)
Enter the villain of this particularly tale: AT*, the editor of The Post, Ohio University's campus newspaper. AT was a bit of a firebrand, looking for a big story that would help her make her mark before graduation. It just so happened that N.A.T.E. got in the way.
The day before the elections, AT got wind of an "accounting scandal." Apparently the current student senate treasurer (also known as: the guy running as my VP) was stealing money. AT ran with the story. Even though the only "witnesses" were members of the opposing ticket.
We lost the election. In large part because of the huge, above-the-fold, Nixon-esque front-page headline on newspapers littering campus that said my party's VP was stealing student funds.
The following day, the newspaper retracted the entire story. Said it was completely wrong. In a single column. On an inside page.
They greatly influenced the election, hurt individual reputations, cost a lot of people a lot of money & opportunity and walked away with great clips. Years after the fact, an ethics professor told me that AT said it was a huge learning experience for her. Somehow I wasn't moved.
I mention this because this power of the pen has been wholesale transferred to bloggers. With Google in the mix, anything we say about a person or brand creates a digital trail of commentary that is somewhat-permanently associated with that brand or person. For better or worse.
It's one thing when it's right - or at least a valid representation of an experience - but what happens when it's wrong?
Jump ahead to last week. Another blogger took issue with something that I posted. Nothing unusual there. In fact, creating controversy and conversation is generally a good thing in this medium. The problem was that she suggested that I had been unethical.
A slew of incendiary comments further indicted me and by the time I had the chance to set the record straight, there was a quite significant trail of negative commentary attached to my, let's say, personal and blogger brand.
At first, the corrections came "in a single column. on an inside page." They were emails and post comments - the below-the-fold stuff we always mean to get back to, but...
To her credit (and with my thanks), the following weekend, the blogger updated the above-the-fold record (a glorious conceit of Web media) and - to my mind - removed - or at least significantly negated - the negative trail.
That said, there may be a bigger issue at hand. One that greatly impacts the future of social media and our ability - as early adopter types - to be part of it.
Let's get to the specifics.
In short: A local foodbank is having a really bad year. So a number of "creative economy"-type businesses around town had started internal food drives. Two woman from my agency among them.
And when I say these two women started a food drive, I mean they started a movement. Teams, campaign posters, internal events. It was a big deal. I got caught up in it and used my blog to challenge other agencies in the area to start drives of their own.
Turns out: This particular foodbank had a previous business relationship with my agency. So, the aforementioned other blogger called me out for - essentially - pimping my client under the guise of authenticity.
I hadn't thought of them as a client (in part because I never worked with them). And didn't have an agenda. I probably should have made the connection, but I wasn't in that mindset - so I missed it. Opened myself up to the questions and criticism.
Still, it raises an interesting question:
Can social survive skepticism?
If brands respond to social media trends effectively, they'll be finding ways to make themselves worth talking about by their most important stakeholders. They'll be creating a relationship around that shared passion that Kelly Mooney talks about in The Open Brand. Those stakeholders aren't just customers. They're also employees and partners. The people closest to the brand.
One way to think about it: If my company is doing something I'm proud of and I talk about it, shouldn't that lend it even more credibility in this new paradigm (meaning, the message actually successfully engaged and activated someone who knows the dirty laundry. so, it must be pretty real, powerful stuff)... instead of more skepticism in our traditional one?
Can we be people first and job titles second? Or do affiliations always lead and ideas follow?
And, if we open ourselves up to believing in that authenticity, how do the real spinners and pimps fit in?
For me, I hope the answer is that social forces brands to become more compelling and companies to be more ethical and transparent. But that's a long view answer to a here-and-now push-and-pull. One that pits suspicion against conviction. One that will shape how we go forward.
*Not her real name