Government // Mobile & Wireless
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9/23/2013
11:26 AM
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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.

I think Anonymous is relevant in this context because an online business commons lives at the intersection of the hive mind that is the Internet and the hive mind that is corporate brand protection. And the only way to get past that deafening buzz is for business portals to invest in -- and for business consumers to adopt -- a credentialing authority for the anonymous business masses online, something similar to what InformationWeek did for me.

The closest I've seen to what we need is on LinkedIn. When you click on "Who's viewed your profile," you see a mix of real names (the brave), those who "chose to be shown as anonymous" (the cowardly) and the people who fit somewhere in between:

--Someone in the Design industry from the Dallas, Texas, Area

--Someone in the Computer Software industry from the San Francisco Bay Area

--Someone in the Legal Services industry from the Anchorage, Alaska, Area

It's that last set of people who, in the context of a community dialogue, have shared enough with me to let me feel connected.

Trust is an entirely different matter. Sites can easily ask users for city, industry and role information, but people can just as easily dodge that ask (see sockpuppetry).

A handful of companies have taken on the challenge of verifying identities, usually for commerce. But the need that continues to go unmet is that of verified anonymity -- for all of us in the business world who want to contribute to the creation of a thoughtful online community but can't risk the crosshairs of Big. There probably is a company or product out there that's perfect for this challenge. We just need to introduce it to the business portals.

The Insipid Message Of The Social Media Rah-Rahs

If I read another "10 reasons" article about why companies should use Twitter or why executives should tweet, my tweet will tweet!

I finally signed Coverlet up. Not because I have insight to share. In fact, I'm thinking about tweeting my weight every day. Frame it as half protest, half art installation.

169. If you're wondering.

Here's the thing: Despite my rants about Big, I care deeply about the company where I work. It's filled with big-hearted people with whom I actually enjoy spending my 14-hour workdays. I'm using every bit of my influence and brain power to help pull this institution -- my institution -- out of irrelevancy. My business partners might care about our decreasing profit margins and banking's potential disintermediation by startups founded by twentysomethings, but at the end of the day I care only about creating a sustainable, humble, empathetic, moral business that can support several hundred thousand real livelihoods.

Despite my snarky soul, I don't want to tarnish my institution's reputation. And given that social media is so easy to mine that even Big can do it (see, I can't help myself), I have three options:

1. I can keep my mouth shut online.

2. I can post under my real name but keep my opinions bland.

3. I can be lucky enough to know someone at InformationWeek who continues to confuse my sarcastic, metaphor-laced, over-the-top rants with "speaking truth to power."

You, dear reader, do not have option 3.

But that can and hopefully will change. (I know the editors at InformationWeek certainly lose sleep over issues of community and how to foster it.)

We all understand that organic, unrefined conversations in the public sphere are replete with real risks: They invite litigation, increase regulatory pressure and abrade brand sensitivities. The point of "verified anonymity" isn't to hide what you're saying from your institution, but to sidestep these risks with a mutually beneficial alternative that advances a higher purpose: the creation of a thoughtful business commons.

If we do it right, it can lead to the same kind of civility that we see on Grandma's Facebook wall. And, oddly, I wrote that last sentence without sarcasm.

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Lorna Garey
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Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Author
9/30/2013 | 2:50:47 PM
re: Community And Anonymity Must Get Along
As grandma said (and probably practices on her Facebook wall) if you wouldn't say something to someone's face, you shouldn't be saying it. Also of interest, a piece on TV this morning about outfits like "Popularity Pays" that connect people with some arbitrary number of followers (who may or may not be 14-year-old girls or Russian nationals) with businesses willing to trade free stuff for positive reviews. The example used was Bang Bang Pie, which offers a free pastry to anyone with 500 followers who will post a pic of its baked goods.
dlavenda
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dlavenda,
User Rank: Apprentice
9/28/2013 | 7:29:18 PM
re: Community And Anonymity Must Get Along
I think this might be the best solution; 'verified anonymity' - that won't help whistleblowers but it will help folks who want to have an open discourse...and keep the conversation civil.
Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
9/25/2013 | 7:00:55 PM
re: Community And Anonymity Must Get Along
And in other sad news, New York's AG has cracked down on bogus frozen yogurt reviewers. Actually set a sting to catch people who were paid to be yogurt shop fans -- to discourage "fake" online reviews. This is an online identity problem govt. can't solve.
flyerguy834
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flyerguy834,
User Rank: Apprentice
9/25/2013 | 5:57:25 PM
re: Community And Anonymity Must Get Along
Outstanding work. Thanks.
RobPreston
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RobPreston,
User Rank: Author
9/25/2013 | 2:01:03 PM
re: Community And Anonymity Must Get Along
I think it's up to the community organizers (for lack of a better term) to keep the conversation at a civil or at least non-vulgar level. To encourage positive discourse. That will go only so far, of course. People will say what they want to say. But the community organizers need to set a tone. In terms of people who contribute articles to InformationWeek.com (above and beyond commenting), those contributors and contributions are carefully vetted and edited. They don't just go up on our site.
Greg MacSweeney
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Greg MacSweeney,
User Rank: Apprentice
9/25/2013 | 1:18:14 PM
re: Community And Anonymity Must Get Along
Many banks (and other institutions with PR groups who have been given far too much power) have so called "zero tolerance" policies when it comes to commenting publicly. Even an employee who comments on a blog can be fired if the institution can trace the comment back to the employee.

I have been involved in disputes with corporate PR and individuals who were about to get fired even though their comment put the institution in a good light (all because the violated the 'zero tolerance' policy).

As you can imagine, this leaves many intelligent people on the sidelines for fear of losing their livelihood. It hurts communication and innovation as ideas are kept bottled up and sometimes never see the light of day.
Coverlet
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Coverlet,
User Rank: Strategist
9/25/2013 | 12:25:45 PM
re: Community And Anonymity Must Get Along
Agree on the 'in particular' part. A social commons around science is more valuable than one focused on business. Although we need both.
Coverlet
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Coverlet,
User Rank: Strategist
9/25/2013 | 12:22:44 PM
re: Community And Anonymity Must Get Along
On the same page. The question is whether or not the civility we seek can be gained by an institution stepping in and saying "I know this person, this author, this commenter, and not only is she real but there are good reasons for me to keep her anonymous (i.e., the hive mind that is corporate brand protection). I have verified that she has a real job/life/email/phone and if worse comes to worst, I (the institution) can call her out." Verified anonymity.

That is fundamentally different than the kind of anonymity we've experienced on the web.
dlavenda
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dlavenda,
User Rank: Apprentice
9/25/2013 | 7:53:36 AM
re: Community And Anonymity Must Get Along
the problem with anonymity is many cases is that it removes the responsibility from the writer to maintain professional standards. Unshackled by who I really am, I can afford to be rude, condescending and generally obnoxious because there are no repercussions. Think I am exaggerating? Take a look at any sites that allows anonymous or quasi-anonymous comments. I think that anonymity has a place for whistleblowers, medical sites and the like, but in general, I ask for more accountability not less.
David F. Carr
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David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
9/25/2013 | 2:30:18 AM
re: Community And Anonymity Must Get Along
I'd think *Popular* Science, in particular, ought to put the effort into engaging with the public, even when it's not easy.
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