Do I Know You?

In today’s Internet age, this seemingly simple question may no longer have a simple answer. The anonymity of the Internet allows users to communicate without fear of retribution and without fear of being labeled an “outsider” in their community. The freedom of anonymous speech is necessary in a true democratic state – from government watchdogs to social critics to spiritual and ethical leaders, society benefits from the free exchange of ideas. However, in some situations, anonymity can be a double-edged sword. Word of mouth (or ‘buzz marketing’) relies on the power of trust. I trust my friends to have my best interests at heart when they tell me about the new album that came out last week that I should hear. When they tell me to go see a new movie, or try out this great Indian restaurant that just opened, I take their recommendations seriously because I believe that they know me and they know what I like. And, they wouldn’t mislead me. Now, in the online world of recommendations, reviews, and product evaluations, the high-level seeds of buzz marketing, we never have a face-to-face connection with the person on the other end of the page. This was true even before the Internet age when reviews and the like were only available through consumer magazines with a vested interest in not betraying their subscription base with inaccurate or biased reviews. But, online, it is very hard to tell not only if people are who they say they are, but also why they are saying what they are saying. The anonymity of the Internet seems custom-made for guerilla marketing campaigns, and it is sometimes almost impossible to judge an article’s authenticity in isolation. But, members of the Internet generation (including yours truly) are not unaware of this problem. We accept that guerilla marketing campaigns exist, that product placement is a thriving industry, and that people online are rarely who they say they are. And, yet, our trust in the Internet is not shaken to the core. We trust the wikipedia to be, if not an immaculate bastion of truth and beauty, at least an accurate source for most technical and factual queries. We trust various blogs and forums which have proven their value to us time and again. The reason? Community. We have evolved brand-new methods of evaluating online sources of information – trial by community. This evaluation is made possible through the open-ended structure of the source. If a blogger were consistently lying to his readership, someone would find out about it and wreak havoc on his/her comments and the related blogosphere, destroying the blogger’s credibility. The same theory applies to wikis that anyone can edit and open forums. The reason we trust is simple: it is clear that it is in the author’s best interest to be telling the truth and, if he/she is not, we’ll find out about it soon and stop trusting them. In a world where brands and corporations no longer inspire the same degree of trust they once did, losing it through steady incompetence or through insidious activity, community can serve as the bridge to once again reach consumers and gain their trust. So, how can companies take advantage of this new trust structure? They can’t. That is, they can’t take advantage of consumers anymore. What they can do is participate. Companies need to engage consumers in open-ended dialogue. They need to expose both their faults and their virtues. In short, they need to be honest and trust their consumers to understand that no company is perfect and that real progress takes time. Then, they will have learned what the Internet generation has known all along – trust is a two-way street.