Community And Anonymity Must Get Along - InformationWeek
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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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Greg MacSweeney
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.
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 (above and beyond commenting), those contributors and contributions are carefully vetted and edited. They don't just go up on our site.
User Rank: Apprentice
9/25/2013 | 5:57:25 PM
re: Community And Anonymity Must Get Along
Outstanding work. Thanks.
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.
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.
Lorna Garey
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.
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