Social media allows fans to interact with the objects of their adoration as never before. And one of the big benefits is that celebrities, politicians, and entertainers who at one time were held on a pedestal now seem more human, more relatable.
But the Web can also capture those human moments that aren’t so great…
Witness the recent flood of respected authors and journalists caught doing dodgy things — from the scandal around Fareed Zakaria’s plagiarism to new revelations about Jonah Lerer’s plagiarism while at Wired to this week’s comparatively petty admission that RJ Ellory has been posting fake glowing reviews for his bestselling books, while writing fake devastating reviews for competitors’ books.
It’s likely less a sudden wave of professionals at the top of their game taking shortcuts, and more that the pervasiveness of the Web makes it so much easier to get busted, and that social media makes it even easier to spread the news and pile on the outrage. It’s like those reports that show the world is getting safer, but we feel like it’s more dangerous, because we see so much more of the violence happening everywhere, thanks to the 24 hour news cycle and sites like Twitter and YouTube.
Yesterday, I was reading a CNET account of the Ellory debacle which asked why someone so successful would do this. One of the great things about this country is the general belief that hard work and integrity nets success. It’s interesting how, when stories like these are exposed, frequently the outrage isn’t that anyone would do things like this, but that someone so successful would.
It’s as if people believe success is synonymous with integrity or morals. The answer to CNET’s question is simple. Someone successful would deal in underhanded methods for the same reason someone unsuccessful would: To get an unfair edge. Success isn’t a magic line you cross. It is all relative and someone is always more successful than you. Most competitive people always want more. (See also: Larry Ellison)
Indeed, less successful people are sometimes excused for this kind of behavior. We’ve all heard stories of recording artists starting out and calling into radio stations to request their own music, and there’s Mark Pincus’ famous “I did every horrible thing in the book just to get revenue” video from the early days of Zynga. A successful man’s “immoral” is sometimes a struggling entrepreneur’s “scrappy” or “resourceful”.
There is always the concern about online mobs forming around these revelations, now that they can come out and fly around the Web so quickly and easily. Guilty or not, the punishment has not always fit the crime. A lot of journalists have been brought down by things that didn’t warrant it. I’d argue Dan Rather fits into that camp, and Rather is fighting back.
But — good or bad — getting busted quickly, definitively and broadly is the new reality — not just for journalists, who are more visible than other professionals. It’s a caution for any professional who has furthered his career by making himself into an online brand. The Internet gives and takes away. The Web is a blind, ruthless force, consistently leveling the playing field. Ask independent book stores, daily newspapers, and travel agents. It’s great if you’re the disruptor, but for flailing incumbents, it can be more ruthless than Mr. Potter.
In the early days of the Web — and social media — that firepower was mostly aimed at businesses. Now, as we’ve all become our own little Web properties and brands, the Web is taking people down.