Being in the band / by J.C. Hutchins

In the world of social media, there are bands, and there are audiences. "Bands" are the folks who create content, are generally perceived as leaders, and serve the communities to whom they are providing content. "Audiences," of course, are those communities. Much like real music bands, these creators earn their audiences' trust by producing quality content. The audiences opt-in, and -- if they like what they're experiencing -- choose to support the creator by consuming the content. If the work is particularly resonant, they evangelize it, and support it in other ways.

The line between "band" and "audience" is becoming increasingly blurry. Audience members are often producing their own content (blog posts, Flickr photos, online videos and the like), and band members often find themselves in audiences, consuming what's being created by others.

It's a groovy system in which anyone can play, and everyone can listen. There are countless performance venues -- blogs, Twitter, Facebook -- and as many bands and audiences to fill them. This is a great thing.

But damnation, howzabout all those frickin' douchebags?

I could write a book -- a phonebook-sized tome, a What Not To Wear for netsetters -- that would plainly illustrate the douchebaggery infesting the social media space. Spend a week on a social network, and you come away slimy-slick from the stuff: spammy tweets and blog comments, bigotry and hatred, mindless chest-thumping punditry, etc.  I've periodically dropped my Twitter use completely because of all the goddamned noise.

I no longer worry about such obvious trash. It's the "stealth mode" douchebaggery that's really bugging me.

Spotting stealth mode douchebaggery requires initiation. It nearly always requires being "in the band" (though this is not required) -- and being in the band long enough to insightfully observe other bands doing what they do. Initiated band members have a different perspective of their peers. They often have a greater appreciation for killer content (because they know how challenging the creative process can be), and are often cheering more loudly than others because of this insider knowledge.

They can also more easily see the shoddy rigging of the show lights, hear misplayed keys, and know when a performance is being phoned in … or outright phony.

I've been in the band long enough to spot insincere motivations or unsavory behavior in other bands. I've witnessed enough bullshit first-hand -- high school-esque gossip, fake smiles, fair-weather friendships, lots of taking and no giving -- to know that a great many people are being duped by a great many online carnies. These days, it doesn't take me very long to discern an enthusiastic creator from a leeching user. I embrace and try to help the genuine folk when I can, and keep my distance from the poison.

I do my very best to be genuine, and not poisonous. I have succeeded and failed spectacularly at this. I have made very good decisions, and very bad ones. A plus: The longer I'm in this game, the fewer bad decisions I make.

To avoid douchebaggery, let's stick with me for a moment, and then we'll return to being in the band. I am a tenaciously ambitious creator. I am ethically obligated to see my work succeed. I trumpet my work so loudly, I give those Old Testament Jericho dudes a run for their money. I make no secret as to why I make so much noise (and ask my peeps to do the same): I want to grow my community, and sell books. Achieving both ensures that more books will be written, which benefits me and my community. My audience knows this, because I've told them all about it. I've initiated them, provided the battle plan. My peeps seem just fine with this. If anyone's complaining, they're not telling me.

But back to stealth mode douchebaggery. I'm in the band. I see other bands play. By my reckoning, some of the best-playing bands have completely hoodwinked their audiences. They do not provide best practices, or keen insights or whatever they promise to deliver. They're usually parroting others (credit optional), or outright stealing ideas or business models, and passing them off as their own. They do not innovate. They often talk a big game, but do very little heavy lifting. Coattail-riding, jealousy and back channel shit-talk are specialties.

Equally sinful, they don't appreciate their colleagues; they perceive them as stepping stones, not long-term allies. They treat their peers, and their peers' fans, with disrespect. Their selfish back channel behavior can be likened to the proverbial bull in the china shop: they're disrupting harmonious professional standards, and destroying their credibility along the way. Reciprocity isn't part of the picture here. They -- just like me -- probably think they're doing it "right." What they're doing is burning bridges within the insider community they fought so hard to become a part of.

Professionals don't talk shit about other professionals in public, so the true personalities and reputations of these stealth mode douchebags are rarely exposed. This is one of social media's dirty secrets. There are people who hate each other in this space, but publicly chatter back and forth as if they're pals, to maintain the facade that all bands are happy bands. After all, we live to serve our audiences. The show must go on.

(If you think I'm going to be the guy to "out" the douchebags by name here or anywhere else, think again. I'm not rich or rude enough for such career-wrecking foolishness. I'm part of the problem.)

Cracks publicly appear in this model, but they often quickly fade; with so many lifestreams whizzing by on our screens, there's only so many braincycles one can dedicate to (for instance) a fussy blog comment exchange before that person is swept back into the ever-unfolding now. It's like TV: there's always something on.

Far beyond the stage, the audience rarely sees this credibility-smashing commotion. They're busy being dazzled by the band. And that's kosher, to a point. Being dazzled is good. Being bamboozled is not.

I mentioned my thoughts about "being in the band" during a recent interview with Trust Agents co-author Chris Brogan. I presented a much shorter version of my premise, and asked him two questions.

The first: If you're in the band, and witnessing unsavory practices or messages hailing from another band, what can you do?

Brogan's answer, in essence: Productively use back channels to form equally productive alliances with like-minded creators. Forge a creative or ethical philosophy. Beat that drum loudly, and use it to beat away the douchebags.

There is wisdom there, and validation. I've been doing that for some time, and have forged lifelong friendships and alliances from it.

My second question: If you're in the audience, how can you spot "talented" bands from untalented ones -- even when the douchebags are putting on a killer show?

Brogan's answer: Look at the company these bands are keeping. Who are their allies? How do their allies behave? What content are they all creating? Use that as a barometer of quality and sincerity.

I can't rightly add much more to that; Brogan's replies were succinct and elegant. I do implore audiences -- and bands -- to understand that this abuse of trust, community and relationships exists. Also understand that it transcends the obvious crassness and douchebaggery you'll encounter in the public streamspace. This stuff requires peripheral vision. It sounds like a conspiracy theory. It isn't.

We get what we give. Our returns in this space hinge directly on how we treat others publicly and privately. Those who engage in dodgy behavior might risk the eventual ire of their audience … but their credibility and professionalism will certainly be judged by other bands, and far more swiftly. Word spreads, both online and off.

Watch the bands. Watch how they treat their audiences, and their peers. Perhaps you'll never witness such stealth mode douchebaggery. But perhaps you will spot those cracks. And perhaps you'll discover that some bands are playing for a far smaller audience than you initially surmised: themselves.

They were never playing for you at all.