All the cues we use to figure out who’s real and who’s not appear to be fading away.

Years ago, there were “real” books and self-published books. The real books were worth buying and reading, the self-published were from vanity presses. Today, of course, some of the best stuff is self-published, whether as a book or a blog.

The Republican Party just announced that it’s paying a 30% commission to anyone with a website who collects money on their behalf. That sort of tactic used to be reserved for fledgling startups or small grassroots organizations.

Multi Level Marketing used to feel just a little creepy. Vitamins or cosmetics got sold by MLM. Today, of course, it’s not surprising to hear about car companies or even doctors rewarding people with cash or services for referrals.

Wearing a fine suit that fits you right was a great cue to others that you were successful and powerful and about to make something happen. Today, it’s just as likely that your potential partner is going to show up in a turtleneck and jeans.

Hotmail accounts used to indicate anonymity and a little fly-by-night aura about someone. You wanted the email addresses of people you interacted with to have permanence… stuff like Today, of course, gmail is the flavor du jour.

Having your headquarters in Manhattan used to be a sign of real success. People even made a business out of selling PO boxes at the Empire State Building. Today, you’re more likely to find aggressive, responsible companies sprouting up in Colorado, Dubai and Singapore.

The best websites (belonging to the best organizations) used to be designed by Razorfish or Organic or Scient. They were big and fancy and expensive and complex. Today, it’s not surprising to find a successful business with a one-page site that cost $300 to build. Even more surprising are the sites filled with direct marketing copy that aren’t scams… just effective tools to make sales.

Advertising used to be about expensive spreads in the New York Times magazine. Today, text-only Adwords ads on Google are the most likely to be paying for themselves.

Used to be that being public and traded on the NYSE was a sign of permanence and ethics. Today, after Enron and United and Xerox, it’s the previously unknown (and private) companies that just might be the best to do business with.

So, how do we tell the good from the bad? In a connected world where people don’t have letterhead, don’t wear suits (don’t even own suits) work out of tiny rented office suites (or their living room) have a simple website and buy only Adwords, have an answering machine not a PBX, don’t have a receptionist or a sculpture out front… in that world, how do we tell?

As we’ve stripped away a lot of the extraneous expenses and signaling mechanisms, are we in a race to the bottom (if “bottom” means raw, not bad)? I can no longer count on the best books coming from a major publisher, on the best articles being in the biggest magazines (in fact, I can assume that if it’s the cover story of a major magazine, it’s insipid). I can no longer assume that someone with a sketchy resume or a simple website isn’t serious about what they’re up to…

Ten years ago, there was a neat and orderly line for companies that wanted to go public and cash out. It started at Stanford and included lunch with the right venture capital guys. There was also a line for authors and salespeople and non-profit administrators and teachers and just about everyone else. Today, cutting the line appears to be the best way to get what you want.

[at this point in my riff, I’m supposed to insert a breathtaking insight, something that will turn your head around and make it all make sense. I’m not sure I can. I think maybe the insight is that puzzling times lie ahead].

Welcome to the blended times. The moment when the big and small, the impermanent and the permanent, the accepted and the ‘scammy’ meet. For a while, it’s going to be awfully confusing. We’ll get ripped off, waste time, become even more skeptical than ever before.

But soon, I think, we’ll walk out to the other side.

I have no certainty as to what the other side looks like, but I’m pretty sure the winners are those that treated their customers and their constituents with respect and did it with honesty. Trust and respect are the two things we haven’t figured out a shortcut for.