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The Social Impact of Friendships and Lies

Authors: Jay Baer Jay Baer
Posted Under: Social Media
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Do you trust me?

Social media relies on the premise that we’ll believe what people tell us more readily than if we were told the same thing by a nameless, faceless company. That’s why brands go to great lengths to humanize themselves on the social Web.

But, a new study by Edelman (whose digital arm features social media and ebusiness genius David Armano) claims that bond is eroding.

A survey of 4,875 adults (500 U.S.) world-wide shows that just 25% of respondents said their friends and peers are credible sources of information about companies – a decline of 20% since a similar analysis in 2008.

AdAge tried to make hay out of these findings with the provocative headline: “In the Age of Friending, Consumers Trust Their Friends Less.

With Friends Like These, Who Needs Friends?

On the surface, it makes sense. The pervasive time crunch that blankets us all has forced us to curtail face-to-face relationships in exchange for digital interaction. And in most cases, we’re willing converts, with Facebook’s ease-of-use and Twitter’s immediacy replacing letter writing and meeting up for lunch. As a result, we have both more and fewer friends than ever.

The real shift is in how we define friendship. That’s the research study I’d like to see. There are dozens – maybe even hundreds – of people that I “know” via social media, and consider to be friends. Yet, in almost every case I have no idea if these people even have siblings.

So, given that we’ve cast a much wider net for our “friends” thanks to the social Web, is it any wonder that some of those new fish will be less than sushi grade? Furthermore, our newfound addiction to status updating gives each of our “friends” that many more opportunities to ratify or countermand our own choices and proclivities, building or eroding trustworthiness in real-time.

In the old days of three dimensional friendship, you might discover some unsavory elements of a friend after spending two or three afternoons or evenings together, in different situations, with various combinations of mutual acquaintances. Now, you can discover if someone’s a dolt in 140 characters or less. It’s like truth serum with a keyboard. I’ve now hit double digits on the number of people I have unfriended due to their apparent round-the-clock playing of pointless mafia, farming, or aquarium games on Facebook.

So sure we have less faith in our “friends” than we used to. But, unlike AdAge, I certainly don’t see that as a shortcoming of social media, because the same study showed (as pointed out by the always awesome Shiv Singh) that our trust in EVERYTHING has gone down.

Lying By the Seat of Our Pants

Reexamine the chart above. Trust in TV news? Down 20%+. Trust in radio news? Down 20%. Trust in newspapers? Down 20%. What’s interesting and depressing is that our trust in everything measured in this study has diminished by almost exactly the same rate. That’s not an indictment of social media and its relationship-building, it’s an indictment of veracity.

And really, is that a surprise either? In the last year, I’ve been lied to at various times by the President, Congress, my family, clients, Tiger Woods, Toyota, the Catholic Church, the local school board, and at least one Olson twin (but I can’t remember which). What this Edelman research demonstrates is that we’ve become a bunch of cynics, and who could blame us?

That’s why it’s more important than ever for companies (in social media or otherwise) to embrace the truth. It used to be that scandalous lies got talked about. Now, authenticity and acknowledgement of shortcomings is an incredibly effective marketing and communications approach (see Dominos, as I wrote about here).

In the land of the liars, the truth-teller is king.

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