The Illusion Of Transparency In Social Media

by Brian Carter February 12th, 2009 

Disclosure: Brian is a cofounder of the pay per tweet twitter marketing service, TweetROI.

The concept of transparency seems to have universal support in Social Media.

What Is Transparency?

Transparency… when used in a social context, implies openness, communication, and accountability. It is a metaphorical extension of the meaning a "transparent" object is one that can be seen through. Transparent procedures include open meetings, financial disclosure statements, the freedom of information legislation, budgetary review, audits, etc. – Wikipedia

(Image Transparent and glasslike 41/365 by brewedfreshdaily from Flickr, Creative Commons)

There has been a fair amount of discussion about social media transparency in the last few months:

  • The controversy over IZEA's paid blog postings
  • More recently, Chris Brogan discussed with his Twitter followers whether when he tweets about one of his social media clients, should he disclose the nature of his relationship with them
  • There has been little acceptance for Magpie, the service that pays Twitterers to accept ads in their tweetstream, and it uses hashtags to disclose the paid nature of the tweets.
  • This article posits that we are transparent in real life, so why be different in social media?

Transparency sounds good. It's hard to argue with, isn't it?

No, not really. I'm going to argue with it, to see how strong your argument is in reply. I mean I want to see the strength of your logic, not how loud you can yell about me. ;-)

Ooh, Brian Argues Against Transparency?

I don't like agreeing with things that just sound good on the surface. As I'll illustrate, it's possible to be hypocritical about your transparency, especially when you consider all the types of economic exchange (not just money) that we regularly conduct.

And let's be honest about being honest. Most of us are not as transparent as the above referenced article suggests. I value honesty as much as anybody, but people tell all manner of "white lies" every day. They spin situations to secure gain and avoid loss. We know there are some people who will use our honesty against us. Those who have engaged in serious self-examination recognize the obstacles to perfect self-honesty. Do we always know all of our own motives as we act?

Let's get started with…

Questions About Payment And Motives

  • Do you disclose ALL your motives and all the benefits you receive for your tweets, blog posts, retweets, and flattery? Have you ever retweeted someone because you wanted them to like you more?
  • Can we completely avoid bias? For example, does being an expert in a thing you get paid for compromise your objectivity about it? How much of a salesperson have you become to protect your personal bottom line?
  • Is there a difference between being paid in money and being paid in favors, flattery, reputation, links, and other traded goods?
  • Don't you get paid to do your regular job? What's the difference between that and the benefits of relationships?
  • Do you have "poverty-consciousness"? Do you believe that giving (and receiving a non-monetary recompense) is better than selling? Do you think selling, buying, and money are inherently evil?

Here are some social media situations I've run into lately that evoked this issue:

  • A mom blogger recently who said she would be happy to run a contest for a company if they gave her a Flip Camcorder, but not if they gave her the same amount of money to buy a Flip with. She laughingly admitted to me that that was inconsistent.
  • Another mom blogger who says she's sick of companies trying to buy her off with free stuff. She and her family have bills to pay and she'd appreciate money instead.
  • Chris Brogan was transparent about his K-Mart blog post and still received a huge amount of flak for doing it.
  • Many twitterers and bloggers I talk to about paid social media and transparency bring up the assumption that if you're paid, you're opinion is no longer authentic or trustworthy.
  • Magpie, the service that pays you to allow ads into your Twitterstream is completely transparent, and as a result, many people who tried Magpie got unfollowed and stopped using it. Note the comments in this blog post about Magpie.

Money's Power To Compromise Authenticity?

Sure, some people's desire or need for money is greater than the strength of their convictions. Money will make some people say anything, or at least change their opinion to some degree. But this isn't true for everyone. More and more people in the last few generations are trying to work jobs that they believe in. People have tried to integrate their beliefs, their lifestyle, and their work. They try to get paid for things that allow them to be authentic and true to themselves.

Here's the acid test: You get paid for some job, right? Does that money make you less authentic? Less trustworthy?

Social Capital Is Another Way We Are Rewarded Every Day

There are many types of capital involved in human economy.

Social capital is a concept developed in sociology… that refers to connections within and between social networks as well as connections among individuals. Though there are a variety of related definitions… they tend to share the core idea "that social networks have value. Just as a screwdriver (physical capital) or a college education (human capital) can increase productivity (both individual and collective), so too social contacts affect the productivity of individuals and groups". – Wikipedia

Types Of Capital:

  • Financial capital is money.
  • Human capital is workers and their ability to produce.
  • Culture capital is knowledge.
  • Social capital is relationships.
  • Political capital is popularity and support.

One Type Of Capital Can Be Transformed Into Another

  • Financial capital (money) can buy you the services of human capital (workers).
  • We can leverage our human capital in return for financial capital (getting paid for work).
  • Cultural capital like The Beatles musical catalog is owned and can be sold for financial capital.
  • Social capital can be leveraged into a job or position that brings you financial capital.
  • Social capital in the form of a salesperson's accumulated business contacts can increase his or her financial capital (salary or sales due to those relationships) in the next job.
  • The social capital of your in-house email list can be bought and sold (if email subscribers have opted in to see offers from your partners).

I'm wondering if we need another type of capital, called Reputation capital, or if that falls under human capital and social capital- perhaps a combination of the two.

Exchanging Social Capital For Financial Capital In Social Media

When Chris Brogan accepts $500 (financial capital) to write about K-Mart on his blog, he's transforming his cultural, human, and social capital into financial capital.

Some people are just objecting to the transformation of social capital into financial capital, because they believe either money is incompatible with authentic endorsement, or it could diminishes the influencer's reputation. Improperly leveraging your social capital could decrease your social capital.

The key to protecting your social capital is to only endorse things you actually like.

And if you're that kind of authentic person, do you need to disclose every benefit -financial, social, and otherwise – you receive from it?

The counterpoint to complete disclosure about paid endorsements is that it carries with it your admission that there's something different about the authenticity of your endorsement. If it's really authentic, should it matter that you were paid?

(image Face of the Crown Fountain by albany_tim from Flickr, Creative Commons)

Transparency, Social Capital, And Mixed Motives

Do you disclose when your blog post or tweet could gain you:

  • The positive regard of influential people?
  • A stronger relationship with a certain demographic?
  • Greater reputation that could lead to a better job or higher salary later?

Examples Of Motives For Social Gain And Mixed Motives

  • Charity and Personal Gain: Suppose you tweet about an online charity effort. Let's say 80% of your motivation is that you really like the charity's aim. But 20% of it is you know people will think better of you for supporting a charity- you will gain social capital by tweeting it. Should you disclose this ulterior motivation?
  • Retweets as Flattery: Or let's say you decide to retweet a top Twitterer like @mashable, @scoblelizer, or @guykawasaki – do you hope this will gain you social capital in the form of positive regard from them?
  • Replies as Social Proof: Or do you ever thrill in @replying with top Twitterers because you know others will see you conversing with them? You'll gain reputation and even Twitter followers from the exchange.
  • Flattery and Obligation: If someone flatters you or retweets you on Twitter, do you retweet something of theirs because you feel you owe them? Do you need to disclose that? Why not? They gave you something socially- retweeting them is an economic exchange of social capital.

Problems With Transparency, Authenticity, and Motive

None of us are perfect. Mixed motives – like the understanding that we ourselves may gain even from charitable acts – are often operative in our behaviors. Should all of them always be disclosed to everyone? They affect your behavior or word choice, so wouldn't that be more transparent of you?

And I say MORE transparent- is it all or nothing? Are you 100% transparent, or is 75% enough? Most people, in my experience, are selective about who they trust and about who they share certain information with.

The fact is, very few people can truthfully and accurately say that every opinion they state is pure and free of motives for self-gain. So is there a percentage of motive, a theshold we must reach before we have to disclose it?

  • For example, say you received $0.01 for tweeting positively about a website. That's probably not enough money to make you say something nice about something you don't care about. Nor enough to change your opinion. But what about $5.00? Or $25.00? Would that compromise you? Where's the line? Is it a different amount of money for everyone?
  • Or what if you were 50% excited about a charity and 50% excited about how positively people would think about you promoting? Is 50% enough of an ulterior motive to have to disclose? Where's the line? What percentage? Is it even foolish to quantify it? Why?

Some of you will say I'm overanalyzing it. Perhaps.

But hypocrisy happens when we're not sufficiently critical of our own beliefs and motives and their consistency. So I think this dissection and magnification of the issues of various types of capital exchange and transparency in social media is important.

So what say you?

Brian Carter

CEO of FanReach, Brian Carter has been an Internet Marketer, speaker, and social media trainer since 1999. Brian has been quoted and profiled by Information Week, US News & World Report, The Wall Street Journal, and Entrepreneur Magazine. He is the author of the book How To Get More Facebook fans. He is both an adwords consultant and a facebook consultant. Check out his his free Facebook Marketing 101 course, and the full FanReach Facebook Marketing and Advertising course.

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6 Responses to “The Illusion Of Transparency In Social Media”

  1. Should transparency be an underpinning of our practice in social media? – yes, I think we need to strive for it.

    Should we we let our endeavor to be transparent keep us from supporting causes or products in social media – no, the products and services we enjoy can be a part of what we do.

    It's a slippery slope we apporach when people of some means and high altruisism get on a soapbox and point condeming fingers at those trying to feed the kids and pay the rent doing what they enjoy.

    Chris Brogan was MORE than forthcoming in the K-mart gig and people STILL raked him over the coals for freaking $500; when we try to be puritanical in our views of what is acceptable and what is not in a transparentcy model only those people blogging from under a freeway bridge with no requirement for means of support could meet the criteria of the masses.

  2. I work as a paid blogger for a variety of clients. I make certain to only accept gigs that are related to things I believe in now that I am completely freelance.

    All of the blogs I run contain an about page stating my exact relationship as a hired gun for all to see. This transparency s something I am adamant about.

    The furor of Brogan's K-Mart experiment was something that I found odd. I wholeheartedly support him for doing it, especially the way that he implemented it. If there is never to be a profit motive then no one will ever make money doing these things. Do we get torqued because the people working for the March of Dimes draw a salary? How about the people who man the various help desks that we call?

    Integrity is the key issue, transparency about one's motives is a step on that path. Since everyone uses these tools in a different and highly personalized way there is no single answer to this question, rather it becomes a case of what works for the particular individual.

    Did accepting payment invalidate any of the work I did over the past 3 years writing about the effects of Hurricane Katrina on my home city of New Orleans? I don't think so. By being my source of income it allowed me to focus all the more on putting that knowledge out where anyone can find it.

  3. This is a very detailed post and I'm not sure what the finer shadings are, but you seem to be suggesting that it's too difficult to decide what your ethics are and then follow them. With regard to ulterior motives for retweeting, my motive for twittering is to build up a quality twitter following and promote my blog to them, and every tweet is supposed to pass the test of whether it can be argued to have the potential to increase interest in http://www.fwrenaissance.com, a blog about lifestyle & education in Fort Worth Texas.

    Since my blog has a journalistic intent, I believe I have to follow basic journalistic traditions such as not accepting merchandise in return for promoting a product,and being honest in my assessments of the things I write about.

    I believe by doing this ultimately people will value my site more because they can trust what we write there. And that is the "social media captial" I am after. It depends on what you're calling "transparency."

  4. DazzlinDonna says:

    I completely agree with you. While I appreciate seeing some sort of disclaimer that someone may be affiliated with a product, or may be getting paid to review a product, that doesn't really affect my judgment one way or the other. Either I trust the person's judgment (paid or not), or I don't.

  5. In the case of Chris Brogan I don't know what else he could've done to get his point across as clearly as he did. I think he knew what he was walking into though.
    Generally, my rule of thumb is, if you are going to get paid for an endorsement,make sure you really like it and disclose as much as you feel you must. If your readers don't understand that relationship, then so be it! The crowd business is based on percentages not decimals.

  6. social media transparency? its better if we apply it on government officials.

    i love this post. it really gives me a lot sense.