Think back for a moment and categorize the social groups in your life along this continuum: controlled – participatory.
Examples: Family (born into, controlled), elementary school (selected for you, controlled), friends (mostly participatory, but typically formed as an extension of a controlled environment like school/neighborhood), sports (a mix of participatory and controlled), the Bachelor text thread between you and your cousin (purely participatory), etc.
As you move from totally controlled to totally participatory, there’s one factor in particular that seems to really matter: authenticity sensitivity. In plain English, how much do you care that the other people are “for real?” How much do they judge you the same way?
Generically, the more controlled a social group is, the less you’ll require authenticity, while the more participatory it is, the more authenticity you’ll need. In other words, the dorks in your family are still part of YOUR family, and can’t fake your Bachelor interest with your die-hard cousin, because you’re either all in or all out on this. You will never escape Darwin.
But wait, there’s more. These groups are everywhere, and there’s not so much a structured hierarchy as there are upstream – downstream relationships. What the cool kids do on weekends might eventually be what everybody else does. What the losers do never catches on in the mainstream. The deep sub-reddit generated funny cat meme that ends up viral on Facebook has to start somewhere. Authenticity sensitivity in participatory groups dials in what is accepted, rejected, and copied.
The implications run far beyond our social groups, and well into our professional lives courtesy of the internet. When the New York Times launched the Weinstein story it was controlled at first, and upstream to start (as subscribers and followers were the first to see it). The story quickly traveled downstream as multiple media outlets began to share the report, until it was everywhere, still as controlled news. When #MeToo took hold however, the story became completely participatory AND mainstream, with new offshoots appearing in various locations back upstream, starting new cycles.
Now consider how the advertising dollars and businesses both create and give chase to where the eyeballs are, across time, space, platforms and mediums. Consider how you or your company are, or are not, keenly aware of these dynamics. Consider how fast we are evolving from products advertised on TV for recognition in the grocery aisle into brand ambassadors on Instagram. Controlled – participatory, authenticity sensitivity, and upstream – downstream matter. A lot.
If you want to think more about this, here’s a 20 minute snippet, in podcast form, from a conversation Chris Dixon had last November at the a16z Annual Summit (venture capital firm Andreesen Horowitz) that’s worth a listen.