You Can't Try to Be Authentic

Hello new subscribers! Welcome to 500 Words, a weekly email of essays and mini-podcasts with creators. The next mini podcast is an interview with Matthew Malach. Matthew works in animation for Nickelodeon and as an indie animation writer. He and I met while working on the iconic cartoon series ThunderCats.

On a Call With Matthew Malach is coming next week.

Now, on to this week’s post.

You Can’t Try to Be Authentic

When you try to be authentic, you are not being authentic.

Until recently, social media seemed like a party to me, one that has turned a little sour lately, okay, one that has turned pretty bad, but still a party that many of us don’t want to leave. We like the attention. After I post, I check back a few hours later to see if there are any hearts, likes, or little blips of love.

Chasing virality is a sad game because it has no end. You want to work with the right hashtags, pick the right keywords, game the algorithm. I do this often. Then it hits me: I’m not writing for people, for friends, for humans. I’m writing for an algorithm, for a machine, for something built to predict the needs of humans but which itself is not human. I am trying to fake authenticity.

Humans have limited attention spans. Advertising copywriters have known this for ages. Products are New and Improved, Recommended By People You Trust, or As Seen on TV. These are not just words. They are mental triggers. Marketers have learned that you must pull these triggers if you want to grab the edge of someone’s vision to get the right neurons to fire.

When I cast a role for a podcast, I check the social media following of the actor. When I title a new book, I Google the words to see how they come up in search. We call this marketing. But I am not marketing to people. I am catering to a calculation that will change. That’s what algorithms are supposed to do when they predict our preferences. Our preferences shift, they shift. We are always on unsteady ground.

To be human, we need a better compass. We need to take the Authenticity Meter out of the closet where it has remained for perhaps years and start using it again.

If you are communicating on any platform you want to create from your inner self and connect with people, not with the machines that are manipulating how we feel.

And they are machines. Algorithms — these predictors of human behavior based on calculations — have grown so sophisticated that the humans who made them don't know how they work any more. The algorithms are learning human behavior faster than the humans who made them can track. And we are so helpful to those machines! We give them an information bounty, posting to social networks, clicking on popular links, allowing ourselves to be identified by fingerprints, our faces, our voices. The Machine pulls it all in and learns.

“The goal is to get the ads to be as relevant and interesting to you, as a consumer, as the content that you’ve elected to follow on your own,” — Vishal Shah, Instagram’s head of product


Let’s not let corporate marketers do that to the Internet. The Internet is worth saving. The early promise of it is worth rediscovering. No other communications system is more inclusive. There are stories to be published, spoken, and heard online that would not live anywhere else. Projects of mine like On A Call With and Privacy Pod would be impossible to do without the Internet.

Privacy is the freedom to be yourself. It's the freedom to share what we want. We can't allow our preferences to be stolen by corporate marketers who use them to sharpen their tools of digital intelligence.

The Internet is worth fighting for. In the coming weeks I will share some ideas about how we can do that.

Thanks for reading,