Trust: The staying power of word-of-mouth

I feel compelled to bring up a topic that’s been in the news of late, and as a result could inaccurately color the overall perception of social media generally and influencer marketing in particular.  It’s no stretch to say that the major social channels (mainly Facebook & Twitter) have gotten a sizeable portion of bad press of late, much of it richly deserved.  There are accusations that Facebook specifically took a – shall we say – cavalier approach to user privacy concerns; not to mention that many, if not most or all of its user data was comprised in some fashion or another.

This fact has called for a reassessment of Facebook’s business model, security practices and privacy policies.  The situation has even created an existential crisis around what, if any, societal value Facebook presents to its users on balance.  But rather than point out Facebook’s myriad flaws and ultimately get into a philosophical debate about its value to society on the whole, I’d rather point out that there are alternatives.  One of them has been around far longer than the internet, and its durability leads me to think that it’s more likely to survive over Facebook and its ilk.  Word-of-mouth referral is as old as time, and in comparison to Facebook it’s in many ways the antithesis of the vapid, quick-hit social terrain claimed by Facebook.  While both are indeed subject to manipulation and/or corruption, word-of-mouth has built-in safeguards that give it an inherent advantage to “traditional” social media (or, rather, what’s traditionally thought of as social media in this day and age).

Additionally, both word-of-mouth and social media offer the similar advantages of sharing, interactivity and immediacy of access.  Both have in common the near-ubiquity afforded by search engine access.  And, both offer the seeming interpersonal aspect of the interactions.  And yet, they’re different enough that it’s best to view social media as an entry point into word of mouth-related interactions.

By way of contrast, word of mouth goes much further beyond social media because it also relies almost exclusively on reputation, which hinges on two key characteristics:  identity and recourse.  These two features bind users on either side of a word-of-mouth exchange in ways that simply do not exist on the platforms that more commonly come to mind when thinking of “social media.”  Look at it this way:  apart from the obvious differences in length, depth and “texture” (preference for nuanced argument), how does a Facebook or Twitter rant contrast with a video product review?  For one, the goals are vastly different, even if superficially they appear to be the same – i.e., to persuade.

But even before it seeks to persuade, social media in large part (if not entirely) serves as a means for the poster to demonstrate knowledge, access, conviction and/or savvy.  In other words, digging below the surface, social posts’ primary objective is for the poster to feel good about themselves.  It may then wheel about and head in the direction of persuasion, but it still remains clear to both audience and poster (if only subliminally) that the poster’s principal goal is to make themselves feel important, by way of their demonstration of knowledge, access, conviction, savvy, or what have you.  Whether the poster is right or wrong is hardly the point – in fact, opening up a debate may be an ulterior motive.  In any case, it’s fair to say that social media isn’t the best resource place for edification.

In marked contrast, word-of-mouth content is intimately tied to individuals, which allows its audience a measure of recourse that social media does not.  At its core, word-of-mouth’s reason for being is to bring two or more individuals together to advance an argument via the exchange of information, ideas and opinion.  This requires that an individual validate their identity, or else they will never gain an audience of any import.  And it is this identity that creates a basis for understanding – trust – between the individuals in question.  Very simply, absent identity, there is no way to validate the speaker’s authority.  In such a contrary state of affairs, word-of-mouth would have no value to offer and thus would devolve into the realm of – you guessed it – what we see today on social media.  (All of which goes a long way toward the argument for forcing online identity – but that’s another story.)

In a lot of ways it comes down to the fact that word of mouth binds two individuals directly together

It’s all rather a bit unsettling.  And yet, you use word-of-mouth in your everyday life — which only further underscores its value.  On the other hand, how much would you really lose if Facebook and its ilk went away?

There is something comfortable in the fact that, despite the upheaval in today’s world and social media’s role in that, there are tried-and-true sources of value and stability.  Word-of-mouth is one of them.

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