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Authentically Real

Submitted by Kate Sheehan on May 30, 2008 - 8:07am

Stick a microphone in front of a famous person--a makeover victim, a home owner aspiring to an increased selling price, or a washed-up celebrity looking to reclaim former greatness (if only in his own mind)--and it seems they will all invariably announce their concern with “keeping it real.” My (almost) daily ritual of imitating outdoor activity on a machine plugged into the wall of a window-deficient warehouse while watching talking heads has proved to be an education in our cultural obsession with authenticity.

Library culture is not national culture. Libraries keep things real by not being imaginary, and authenticity is not something that is consciously pursued. Library culture has typically been focused on perfection and has been willing to spend time to get there.

But as our resources and users move online, can we afford to ignore the culture of the Internet? The web, moving faster than perfection, has handed everyone a megaphone and authenticity is online currency.

Over at blyberg.net, John Blyberg posted a video clip of David Weinberger talking about fame and credibility in the free culture created by the web. Fame may not seem to have much to do with libraries, but substitute authority and authenticity and Weinberger is talking about libraries and other cultural institutions and how they are figuring out new roles online and off. 

As John notes, we should be pursuing credibility over perfection and credibility may only shine through the right kinds of imperfections. Clearly a fan of “keeping it real,” Weinberger points out that no one believes in perfection any more. “Perfection is the enemy of credibility. It used to be that we only believed that which was perfect…. We are ceasing to believe that which is too perfect.”

Though Weinberger is talking about famous people and the changing nature of fame, the same changes are affecting authority. Just as the famous used to be “a special class of people,” always seen at their most glamorous, authority used to imbue a person or institution with power that was maintained through an authoritative perfection and not easily stripped away.

Early denizens of the web could always tell when a corporate shill had infiltrated their bulletin board, usenet community or chat room. Perfect punctuation coupled with incongruous, out of date slang terms (“Has anyone here tried the new sandwich sensation at Burger Palace? They are entirely radical!”) was a sure tip-off and no one wanted The Man, or his representatives hanging out on the relatively tiny Internet.

Now, organizations must pick up the megaphones handed out by the web. Far from shunning the PR hack posting online, people now expect that hack to be engaged, conversational and real. Authority and perfection are being rejected for authenticity and humanity.

Authenticity resonates online. Weinberger cites the “light saber kid” as someone who unwillingly and unwittingly stumbled into Internet fame. He may not have wanted that fame, but at least the light saber kid has authenticity on his side; his fame is largely the result of his enthusiasm and passion, not his drive or talent.

Although authenticity and credibility at the expense of perfection may seem scary to those accustomed to the mantle of “cultural institution,” the web has made authenticity the safe choice. The worst fate anyone can suffer at the hands of the internet is to become famous for being phony or hypocritical. The web abhors a poseur.

Authenticity, like Weinberger’s definition of fame, means belonging to your fans, your customers, your patrons. Libraries aren’t mandatory or necessary parts of people’s lives. We can’t send truant officers after people who don’t have library cards and our former cultural authority is fading.

Authenticity over authority is the essence of community, the web and the success of libraries. We are in a unique position to leverage authenticity. Libraries are local- they can be the heartbeat and humanity of their communities.

Unlike corporations, we don’t have to be authentic to our key demographic in accordance with a seventy-four page report on the characteristics and interests of that demographic sent over from marketing. We’re already part of the community we serve and we’re not saddled with the trust-eroding burden of making money off our patrons.

We just need to open up a little more, to put ourselves in the hands of our users and be our genuine, authentic selves. Libraries have never done “slick” very well, and besides, "slick" usually leaves people cold anyway.

Seth Godin recently advised companies “when in doubt, scrawl make it human” because people notice the work of human beings, not marketing campaigns or committees. As libraries pick up their own megaphones, they don’t need to spout about keeping it real (unless they’re on television, of course), they just need to make it human.