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Community And Anonymity Must Get Along

Anonymity might be the only path to building community in an age of corporate brand preservation.

There will soon come a day when a Twitter employee is fired for tweeting. It's inevitable, especially with the company's plans to go public. What good is IPO cash if not to scale? And what path to scale doesn't lead to robotic, letter-of-the-law beadledom?

In that light, it's just a matter of time before Twitter's original talent -- frustrated and newly minted -- cashes out of nouveau Big and gets replaced by risk-averse corporate lifers, hollow marketing types who are unapologetically and bureaucratically brand-conscious, the kind of folks who are humorless to a fault and won't see the comic irony of letting someone go for diminishing their brand.

But enough about Twitter. Let's talk about Twitter.

The problem with social media isn't the casually racist brogramming misogynist. Anyone who's fired over inappropriate tweets isn't being expunged because he's racist or sexist. He's being let go for living in 1986 -- an oblivious dumbass who doesn't understand how the Internet works or how a brand-obsessed business culture can act so quickly and decisively to remove an unsightly human blemish.

The problem with social media is that it's just new enough that the corporate world, with its authoritarian, militaristic tendencies around brand preservation, still hasn't figured out how to deal with its cartoonishly itchy trigger finger. It will take a long while for business to wisen up, to grow the thicker skin that one gets with age, to understand that your brand is not your what but your how.

In the meantime, it would be a good idea to reconcile all the social-media-driven idiot-purges in the corporate world with the noble goal of making the business world more open and connected.

The piece that follows tries to balance businesses' tendencies to be brand vigilantes with the goal of building a thoughtful and engaging business community online, a purposeful social commons that will drive the evolution of the modern corporation.

The Opposite Of Social

I ask myself why more C-level types don't engage in public dialog. The innocuous answer is: Who has the time? But that's disingenuous.

So I ask the 5 Whys, and for me it boils down to the reputational and career risks that come with having raw conversations in the wild. There's very little upside in the kind of honest dialogue that doesn't have each response "refined" by four layers of institutional proofreaders: legal, compliance, branding, public relations.

At the heart of that fear are the thousands of brand literalists, the corporate equivalents of religious fundamentalists: thin-skinned idiots who draw on their personal lives to write passionate letters to authors who offended them, and who somehow are always drawn to jobs that need to treat grays as black or white.

It's these folks who I dread will confuse thinking critically about the challenges of culture with talking critically about your employer -- their precious brand. And left unchecked, the fear of them, at least for me, leaves online business forums barren, the only movement being virtual tumbleweeds.

It's no wonder then that quality conversations about business and how to improve its culture are rare and consigned to the academics and authors who aspire to making speaking fees. The right conversations -- the ones between practitioners -- don't take place online, or if they do, they hide from the sun in personal inboxes on personal devices, written and read on personal time.

And that practice is (and does) an injustice to an executive's most important mountaintop goal: improving employee lives.

Rebooting Anonymity

Here's an odd question: Have you read my bio? Does my experience, role or industry validate my opinions? I would hope that the answer is no. In fact, nothing can validate some of my more extreme, I'm-wearing-a-flamboyant-crazy-hat statements.

So why do so many people check author bios?

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Part of it is that if you spend enough time reading people's work, you feel a little more connected to them. There's a social need driving that click to the bio. And part of it is that you trust that someone from InformationWeek has verified my identity. It gives you comfort to know that the person with whom you're connecting isn't a 55-year-old truck driver posing as a 14-year-old girl who happens to be a CTO at Big.

It's the same kind of trust that we as a nation had in Woodward and Bernstein and their inside source during Nixon's moment of shame. And while our trust in media and journalism has radically eroded since then, we still believe in the idea of a protected, verified, anonymous source. And that belief might be the most unlikely foundation upon which to build a framework for a trusting online business community.

How To Trust The Mask

Completely anonymous communities can exist only for the lulz. Footnote: That Wired article, which is four years old, still boasts the greatest headline of any post ever. In full disclosure, I'm a fan of Anonymous, probably the only one in the financial services industry and definitely the only one in an executive position.

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User Rank: Strategist
9/25/2013 | 2:15:20 AM
re: Community And Anonymity Must Get Along
User Rank: Strategist
9/25/2013 | 1:58:34 AM
re: Community And Anonymity Must Get Along
I have a LinkedIn Pro membership. Even after they get your money, those results remain vague. If you click on "Someone in a Leadership Role in Dallas," the resulting list is a dozen randoms who fit that description AND more often than not, your target... buried in there.

Been giving a lot of thought to LinkedIn. Although sock puppetry exists on the site, most users are real-- and have good reason to be honest about their profiles. It is-- for many-- a resume of sorts. So LinkedIn integration with a business portal (with similar obfuscation) might be the answer.

LinkedIn is also a case study in how vanilla a conversation can get. Their group discussion are out in the open-- with people's real business identities stapled to each comment. Reading the comments on that site would make you believe that the corporate world is filled with positive, always-helpful, life-affirming, Mother Teresa types.

Makes me ill.
User Rank: Author
9/25/2013 | 12:11:06 AM
re: Community And Anonymity Must Get Along
Your point about LinkedIn as a model for anonymity is an interesting one, though I believe users show up anonymously on one's "Who's viewed your profile," widget as a device to get you to upgrade your service with LinkedIn, to see who they really are, not to as a tool for building trust.
User Rank: Strategist
9/24/2013 | 10:56:39 PM
re: Community And Anonymity Must Get Along
People can set themselves up as anyone on the web.. How much do you-- Chris-- trust that a person with the username SeniorBankExec is a senior bank exec? I'll speak for myself and say not at all.

And that lack of trust-- completely earned by the behavior of the internet over the last several years-- is at the heart of our inability to connect on matters of business and business culture.

(It works when you're sharing cat pictures btw.)

This all begs the question of what needs to serve as the foundation of a civil community online for it to thrive. Ideally we should interact with ideas based on their merits, not whether they were posted by ipushfatkids37. But that leads to a very sterile, joyless experience. Business portals need to address the social need to connect (with real people).
User Rank: Author
9/24/2013 | 10:21:02 PM
re: Community And Anonymity Must Get Along
People could set up a Disqus account with the name SeniorBankExec44 today, right? Wouldn't that would provide both anonymity and some sheen of background information? I'm not sure it's really a missing infrastructure that prevents people from engaging anonymously. It might be a cultural taboo that it's somehow sneaky. But I think more likely it's a fear that they'll say something deemed over-the-line and get caught.
User Rank: Author
9/24/2013 | 4:28:34 PM
re: Community And Anonymity Must Get Along
The "institutional proofreaders," as Coverlet calls them, just don't understand that frank, even controversial dialog "in the wild" can enhance their brands. The communications run through legal, compliance and PR departments gets all the personality sucked out of it -- and no one wants to read it or respond to it. Companies need to take a stand and be willing to get criticized. The community (and your customers) will think better of you for it.
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