Friday, November 11, 2005

Those Who Can, Do. Those Who Can't, Teach: 'Synthetic Transparency'

Do corporate blogs automatically constitute an exercise in faux openness, honesty, and transparency?

George Bernard Shaw is credited for saying: "He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches."

And while I have the highest regard for our institutions of higher learning, sadly Debbie Weil's BlogWrite for CEOs post of last night citing a blog penned by Northeastern University students and their professor serves as anecdotal support for Shaw's couplet.

The post makes the contention that corporate blogging is 'synthetic transparency.' That is:

"...using blogs to give the impression of openness, honesty, and transparency but without really doing so.

"This notion is based on Norman Fairclough's* idea of "synthetic personalization"** which he defines as:

"'... a compensatory tendency to give the impression of treating each of the people 'handled' en masse as an individual. Examples would be air travel (have a nice day!), restaurants (Welcome to Wimpy!) and the simulated conversation (for example, chat shows) and bonhomie which litter the media...'"

* Fairclough, Norman (1989). Language and Power. London: Longman.
** Also see Deborah Cameron's use of synthetic personalization as applied to customer care philosophies and practices in organizations. Cameron, Deborah (2000). Good to Talk? Living and Working in a Communication Culture. London: Sage.

I can understand students in an 'Advanced Organizational Communications' class making such an illogical leap, but the post is ascribed to a 'Dr. Carl'--the instructor, I presume.

C'mon, Dr. Carl! The logic of this assertion is flawed, anti-establishment rhetoric.

Either that, or essentially every corporate communication (or individual one for that matter) is--by this definition--'synthetic.'

Here's why.

To categorize corporate blogging as 'synthetic transparency' on par with a sound-bite such as 'Have a nice day!' is simply defining (arguably annoying) pleasantries and communications of intended substance as the same thing.

Every business (or individual for that matter) makes selective (and not automatically 'synthetic') disclosure, not just those choosing to blog.

Selective disclosure of aspects of my business (or personal life for that matter) with 'openness, honesty, and transparency' at the exclusion of other private aspects of my business (or personal life for that matter) pre-dates the blogging phenomenon.

Selective disclosure does not render the disclosure 'synthetic.' Keeping some information back does not render the disclosed information disingenuous, insincere or untrue by default.

I'll grant you that it can happen, but it is not inherent to corporate blogging. This is the flaw in your reasoning.

Selective disclosure is integral to the nature of all communications in corporate life (or personal life for that matter).

It's either that, or we're all plastic, TVP, or cubic zirconium. Take your pick.

Am I missing something here, Doctor?


At November 11, 2005 12:27 PM, Anonymous Leigh said...

Correct me if I'm wrong but what I think you're missing is exactly what a lot of companies are jumping on the blog bandwagon for. A marketing tactic. The more popular blogs become, the more bandwagon bloggers there will be trying to show the public how "real" they can be. The original purpose of a blog was to share thoughts and ideas on a more informal stage and the more companies start to stray away from that, i.e. promise to look into suggestions and never do, some blogs will turn into those comment cards you fill out at restaurants but nothing ever changes. This gives the blog readers a sense of transparency into the company without actually letting them in at all. A synthetic transparency.
I also want to make clear that I don't believe this applies to all or even the majority of blogs, but that it is a phenomenon that can pick up as the importance of blogging becomes in the corporate world.

At November 11, 2005 1:08 PM, Blogger Debbie Weil said...


I happen to agree with your take on this... lest your readers misunderstand and think I was agreeing with the idea that corporate blogging is by definition "synthetic transparency." All I did in my post was note that it was a provocative idea. I was too lazy to spell out my own position it. So thanks for doing it for me!

Debbie Weil

At November 11, 2005 8:29 PM, Blogger Kip Meacham said...

Leigh, thank you for your comment. I think it's really great that syndication/subscription technologies like blogging are finding their way into advanced coursework curriculum.

That said, I must respectfully disagree that a corporate blog is 'a marketing tactic.' A corporate blog is no more a tactic than a telephone, a web page, or a press release. Corporate blogs are a communications medium. They are an innovation to engage a community of people with a common interest (remember, you have to subscribe to a blog--it doesn't find its way into your inbox in the form of spam--you have to opt in to participate).

I also disagree that the purpose of a blog is to demonstrate 'realness.' I'm not sure the original purpose of a blog is different than the purpose of corporate blogs today--they are primarily content management systems with persistent social dialogue.

I will concede many corporate blogging efforts will fail because of a lack of commitment to discourse. But many will succeed and are succeeding in engaging in the 'nirvana' of marketing and communications professionals: scalable one-to-one engagement with someone interested in my product or service. Perhaps this is similar to the 'comment card' behavior of which you speak. If a corporation is truly disinterested in feedback and customer engagement, the corporate blog will only expedite the customer's discovery of the disinterest.

I suppose we'll have to agree to disagree agreeably that 'nothing ever changes' as a result of corporate feedback loops. I have been contacted dozens of times over the years after having completed those 'comment cards,' and have seen specific corporate change result from my feedback--and I've been thanked for it. I have worked in organizations paying tens of thousands of dollars for product or service dialogue—dialogue inferior and overfiltered when compared to content contained in a well-executed corporate blog.

I stand by the point in my post that corporate blogs are selective, not synthetic, communications; that the synthetic behaviors referenced in your class blog post are orthogonal to corporate blogging. Such 'synthetic transparency' is in the corporate DNA before the corporate blog is ever conceived or created. There is no causal relationship here.

At November 11, 2005 9:03 PM, Blogger Walter Carl said...

Hi Kip,

Thanks for your comments on our class blog. I agree with you one point and would also ask that you read the whole of my post on another. First, the part I agree with you on is this: blogging, like all forms of communication, is necessarily a selective activity. In fact, I have made the same point myself in the "Inaugural Post" of my own blog "Word Of Mouth Communication Study." Here's what I wrote:

"Although blogs are exercises in transparency and openness (selection) we must also recognize that they are equally practices of deflection (as the rhetorician Kenneth Burke reminds us). Of course, the deflections, absences, omissions, or silences need not necessarily be borne of ill intent, but certainly they represent alternative rhetorical versions and visions of how things are or could be. This tension between openness and closedness is one I hope to reflect on in this blog, especially as it relates to the construction of personal and institutional identities."

Second, I invite you to read my whole post on synthetic transparency. Here's what I wrote at the end of my post and what many who have picked up on the notion have missed:

"Please note that I have a cautious sense of optimism about the potential for blogging to create a greater sense of openness and transparency in corporate communication efforts. So I introduce this phrase to give us a way to call out companies who are not using blogs to their fullest, and ideal(istic), potential."

Not all corporate blogging activity constitutes "synthetic transparency." However, I see blogging gaining momentum among companies and I want to help ensure companies are doing it for the right reasons. I introduced this term as a way of empowering people to call out firms who are just using blogs because they hear "everyone else is doing it" or are not really committed to the ideals espoused by blogging. Like all terms, there is nothing inherently "synthetic" about blogging, just like there is nothing inherently "authentic" about it either. Both terms do not have intrinsic meanings; rather, those meanings shift over time subject to the agreements (and disagreements) within and among discourse communities.

Thanks again for your interest!

Walter (aka, Dr. Carl)

At November 14, 2005 6:24 AM, Blogger Kip Meacham said...

Hi Walter (aka, Dr. Carl),

Thank you for engaging in the discussion. The citation from your 'Inaugural Post,' and the observation that blogs have neither inherent 'synthetic' or 'authentic' qualities are great clarifications, and aid in the 'transparency' we're talking about trying to provide to discourse communities.

I'll look forward to other insights from you and your students on your blog.

At April 25, 2009 4:59 PM, Anonymous Alysia Cosby said...

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