Last week, Mark W. Schaefer posted about whether you can outsource authenticity. The question – which revolved around the gray area of ghost writing for blogs and other “personal” media – struck a nerve. The lively conversation that ensued in the comments gave voice to a dizzying array of ideas and opinions.

I am a student and fan of the social Web. By extension, and because my professional life resides in the world of marketing and content creation, I am also intensely interested in the topic of social media marketing. But conversations like the one on Mark’s blog make me want to slow down and think about this road we’re on … and where it might take us.

Social is Not New
Being social is not a fad; it’s part of being human. Facebook and twitter didn’t create “social,” they are just two of the ubiquitous, cheap, intuitive tools that broaden our view of and extend our reach into the big, wide world. It’s ironic that these modern technologies give us the ability to engage with friends, family, and brands in ways that hearken back to the “good, old days” of Real Life and one-on-one interactions.

Call It Social, It’s still Marketing
Although the prospect of what organizations can do with these tools is inspiring, when it comes to business usage, I’m torn. On the one hand, social media offers businesses more ways to connect with their customers, understand their needs, and engage in productive dialog. But, when it comes down to it, these “authentic” interactions are still about commerce.

No matter how “transparent” relations become, there will always be a certain level of manipulation and contrivance. Persuading people to take an action they wouldn’t otherwise take is at the heart and soul of marketing. When all the world’s a networking event, how do we find connections free of ulterior motives?

The Pollyanna Outlook
On the other hand, the possibilities for doing good – real, altruistic, make-the-world-a-better-place good – using these same tools are endless. We are seeing only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. This is why I love social media – the idea of connecting people, ideas, and resources for a common purpose gives me chills. The reality that anyone can make this happen using the tools at our collective disposal makes me squeal with excitement. Seriously.

All around the world, groups of people are coming together to do amazing things which can then be shared with, well, everybody. Creative expressions like the massive, “Do-Re-Mi” dance number at Antwerp’s Central Station (and others like it around the globe), or Kseniya Simonova’s stunning sand art performance touch the hearts and spirits of people everywhere – enlightening, inspiring, nurturing both introspection and unbounded joy. Humanitarian efforts like Twestival and Mashable’s Summer of Social Good are great examples of how people can use the social Web to mobilize around causes. Granted, there are corporate sponsors tied to these fundraisers, and T-mobile got in on the massive dance number craze with several staged events like their Liverpool “Lifeisforsharing” gig, but there’s still a sense of true collaboration and a desire to build – rather than buy – something.

The Brave New World
I don’t have a crystal ball, so I can’t predict where we’ll be in five, ten, or one hundred years. All I know is that a major change is afoot, and – like Erik Qualman said in his Social Media Revolution video – it’s a movement on par with the Industrial Revolution. It has the potential to change everything. Business is evolving. I hope it will evolve into an entity that genuinely cares about more than the profit margins, that is able to operate in Real Life alongside Real People, that does more to make the world a better place than improving quarterly productivity or optimizing performance.

My small, personal goal will be to help my clients and partners find innovative and heart-driven ways to use these amazing tools. Am I too idealistic? Maybe. But I’m counting on the fact that our evolution will bring us to a place where we can bring our idealistic dreams to life.

What do you think? Is it possible to combine business with higher purpose? Should business and Real Life mix, or not? What brands to you think are making strides in this area?