Models of authority

When I talk about social media culture to people, I often wind up talking about models of authority, i.e. the different ways in which we view what makes someone a person worth taking notice of. As I see it, there are four main models of authority:

  1. Claimed authority: “You must respect me because I say so”
  2. Institutional authority: “Respect me because of my affiliation”
  3. Historical authority: “Respect me because I’ve been doing this a long time”
  4. Earnt authority: “I have been consistently reliable on this topic”

When I look at how people react to these different modes, the only one I see gaining any traction in social media circles is the last: earnt authority. If you are consistently helpful, reliable or accurate you will be given kudos for that. Furthermore, anyone can earn respect and authority online, if they are willing to put the legwork in.

Claimed authority is particularly reviled, and you can see this in the sceptical way people deal with journalists who claim to knowledge of something but can’t back it up with actual facts. The internet is rife with blogs debunking rubbish journalism of all stripes, whether in the mainstream or fringe media.

Institutional authority gets ignored or challenged. Just because you’re affiliated to a big brand doesn’t mean that you get a free pass. If you’re boring or predictable, you’ll wind up just talking to yourself. If you screw up, you’ll be held to account.

And historical authority – whether of the “Est. 1723” or “I’ve been on the internetz longer than you have so nyer” sort – doesn’t really wash either. You may have been doing what you do for ever, but if you’re rubbish at it people will notice.

Clearly there are other cultural issues at work here too. Speaking in generalities, America is much more open to new people coming into a space and showing what they are made of, whereas in the UK there’s a lot more of a “Who the hell do you think you are?” attitude, with appeals to traditional models of authority much more common.

But where I think this is important is in understanding why some social media projects fail – whether they are internal or external. There are many, many people who are well versed in social media culture and who have a very solid set of expectations, often informed by books such as the Cluetrain Manifesto. And because this culture revolves around individuals exchanging value with each other as equals, they are very keep to preserve a dynamic that they see as beneficial to both themselves and their wider community.

When people steeped in traditional behaviour sets, more focused on extracting value than exchanging it, start dipping their toes into social media, they do so with the wrong models of authority in mind. They think that they’ll be successful because of who they are, how long they’ve been around or simply because they just believe it should be so. That, of course, doesn’t happen.

Instead, businesses need to enter social media humbly, with the assumption that they are going to have to earn respect by consistently being a good and valuable participant in a wider community. And I’m not just talking about how to do social media marketing, but also about internal use. There’s no point just chucking up blogs or a wiki and saying to people, “Right, use these. It’ll be good for you.” You have to understand that social media is about an exchange and ask yourself, what are our people getting out of this?