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Shill and be shilled
Fighting the authenticity trap of digital networks
I think a lot about how to help people find opportunities that will change their life. For the past 9 years, I’ve worked on platforms that help them do that — a chef marketplace, and two professional networks. I’ve been fortunate enough to see tens of millions of people use those platforms to create posts and events, connect and collaborate, share their work, and so on.
What I’ve noticed is that the biggest inhibitor to more opportunities flowing online is inauthenticity. We’ve been trained by social media to act like infomercial actors, even when we know that those platforms are designed to create noise, not connection.
So how do we fight bullshit’s gravity both personally and in the platforms we build? Will building community-owned networks make this problem better, or worse? Will AI unleash the floodgates to inauthenticity, or further increase the value of being real?
Not everyone needs to be famous online
Last week I gave a workshop for Foster, a community of writers, on “Writing as an Input to Collaboration.” Basically the focus was how to reframe writing as an input for connections and opportunities, rather than an output for passive consumption. It felt strange giving a workshop on a topic I feel I’ve only scratched the surface on, but their founder Dan has been a huge supporter of Backdrop so when he asked I decided to go for it.
When I asked all of the writers why they were writing, the answer was mostly the same — “because I enjoy it,” “because it helps me think,” and “because I hope it opens doors for me.” Nobody said “because I want to reach millions of people.” And yet when we did a short workshop on creating a Tweet aimed at finding new opportunities, most people reverted to this infomercial tone. ACT NOW AND YOU CAN HAVE THIS LIMITED OPPORTUNITY WITH ME. BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE…
Of course, Twitter is very happy about this result. Inauthentic threads and posts get retweeted and reposted inauthentically by people looking to build their brand and grow their own audience. It’s this self-referential flywheel of fluff that drives up engagement and keeps the ad dollars whirring. We feel we are supposed to like it, to want it, to do it ourselves, to all “build an audience.” And so we steep ourselves in it, day after day. Layers upon layers of bullshit.
The problem is that for us, creation on social platforms is a means to an ends — for connection, opportunity, etc. But for those platforms, it’s the reverse. Inauthenticity is a great flywheel for engagement, but it actively inhibits the outcomes we want. There is magic in those networks, but getting it means swimming upstream.
Stepping off the bullshit treadmill
There’s a saying founders are fond of which goes something like “ask for funding and you’ll get advice, but ask for advice and you’ll get cash.” I’m sure there are countless sayings that essentially boil down to the same thing — nobody likes being shilled.
One of the skills that humans have in spades is an eye for bullshit. Go on Twitter right now and gauge every tweet you see in your feed from a scale of 1-10 in terms of how authentic you perceive it to be. What you’ll find is that you were doing that subconsciously anyways, and the tweets that rank high on the authenticity scale are the ones you vibe with the most.
This is of course the whole “100 true fans” theory, and why people get so much value if they find a smaller community online that is more relevant to them. In smaller high-trust communities it’s harder to be inauthentic because it feels weird — like showing up to a family dinner with an entirely new personality. You know your Mom is gonna say “cut that shit out” and you will, because she’s right and you immediately feel ridiculous. Cozier spaces provide feedback loops that actively fight the pull to shill.
A simple way to build other feedback loops for authenticity is to notice which things are pulling you away from it. For example, when I was looking back on the last few years I realized that this newsletter was actually pulling me towards publishing constantly and creating thought leadership. So this year I am going to mix in more on curation of interesting things I’ve found and open questions I have, as you’ll see below.
Will community owned networks fight the shill?
Optimizing for authenticity often means exposing what you don’t know. And so, I’ll leave you with a few open questions I’m thinking about on this topic. If you’re also down the rabbit hole or have sources of inspiration on any of them, let’s chat.
What would people build on top of an open-source professional network? And would the competition between those products lead to more authenticity and more opportunities?
What motivates people to add real authentic value to a network, rather than just extracting attention from it? I’m interested in reconstructing the “Geeks, MOPs, and Sociopaths” framework in a way that assumes people are shaped by their environment rather than the other way around.
Is ownership truly the missing ingredient to helping digital networks get work done? Will user owned networks be more authentic, or will they fall into the same trap?
If writing is just an input in social networks, will AI reduce the value of creating inauthentic posts to zero and in doing so help opportunities flow? Or will it open the floodgates to bullshit and further squash authenticity?
Here’s to a more authentic future.
I publish a few posts a year on community ownership, peer-production, and open source protocols.