Google+'s policy of requiring real names, and a blogger I respect recently raged at Klout for having the audacity to use his public Twitter social graph to create a profile of his influence without his consent.
Did we really expect that the information walls surrounding corporations would crumble but that our individual cones of privacy would remain intact? Did we think we would use free and public tools to launch ourselves to greater levels of influence but that our reach and clout would remain protected and unquantified?
Social media is forcing greater transparency on our world, but we do not get to choose where and how this happens. Our new, open culture that is being created one post and tweet at a time does not play favorites. As with every change that occurs in society, the growth of transparency will come in ways that are both welcome and not.
Consumers may cheer every brand forced to defend their environmental footprint, outed for paying for product reviews or embarrassed into owning up to defective merchandise, but consumers will also face the very same forces. Individuals are likely to find it increasingly difficult to hide behind cartoon avatars and cutesy profile names, particularly in environments where serious networking and business are conducted. And perhaps in the future some things we believe today are sacrosanct--our debt payment history or our driving habits, for example--may be as freely available as are companies' Better Business Bureau files, balance sheets and employer reputations. (If that sounds ludicrous, remember that it was equally ludicrous just a few years ago that one might publicly share a complete list of friends and family members, current location or photos of a spouse and children.)
The metaphor some use when criticizing Google's real name policy is that of walking through a public space where no one knows your name. We don't, some point out, travel through life with a "Hi, I'm Augie" sticker our lapel.
True, but this is the wrong comparison because we can only remain anonymous in the real world until we begin to interact with others, at which point we often surrender the expectation of anonymity. Ask for directions to the bathroom and you remain John Doe, but request someone else's contact info, break the rules or attempt to conduct business, and you are very likely required to authenticate your identity. We cannot walk through a busy mall or airport wearing a mask without drawing suspicion, so why should be it be different in most online social venues?
Some feel that the reason Google and Facebook want our actual identity is to provide marketers with better data to permit more accurate targeting of advertising. That is the merest tip of the iceberg. The real reasons run much deeper than advertising.
The next wave of social behaviors won't merely be sharing jokes and insights; we will soon be conducting business in innovative social ways. While it's true that the Fortune 500 want to be able to deal with real people and not fake pseudonyms, it isn't just the big dogs who benefit when you are really you. Soon, it will be as important to individuals as it is to companies that you are a real, accountable, trustworthy, authenticated human being.
An evolution in our economy is underway, and a new "sharing economy" is on the rise. Increasingly, consumers will be turning to each other not just for news, product reviews and opinions; we'll also be renting cars, sharing homes and loaning money to each other. According to Fast Company, peer-to-peer financial-lending will reach $5 billion by 2013; car-sharing revenues will hit $3.3 billion by 2016, and the entire sharing economy sector could soon represent $110 billion.
When you rent your car to a stranger or let one sleep in your spare bedroom, do you want them to be CrazyPartyGal06 who loves Glee, Katy Perry and planking? Or do you want to rent to Susan Smith who's worked at P&G for 10 years, has 300 connections on LinkedIn and Facebook and has accumulated 20 recommendations from people who vouch she's a trustworthy and reliable soul? If you aren't certain how to answer that question, feel free to read the experience that one woman had renting her apartment via Airbnb to "Dj Pattrson." She asks, "Was it a guy? A girl? I still don't know," but she darn well wishes she had Dj's real identity after finding her entire home trashed by this anonymous person.
I'm not suggesting that every social network must require people to disclose their real identity; it's great to have places like Twitter where we can be FakeMicheleBachmann, CrazyPartyGal06 or an anonymous political activist operating in a country with little to no freedoms. But we shouldn't be surprised when social venues like Facebook and Google increasingly strive to ensure their networks are comprised of verifiable and authentic people. The future of trust, commerce, and business depends on us being real.
Danny Brown, the blogger who complained that Klout is opt-out rather than opt-in, perhaps said it best in a two-year-old blog post: "You know the old saying, 'Honesty is the best policy'? Take that with you into the social media arena and you’ll learn more and gain more than if you try being something you’re not... Be open, be clear, and be honest." That's the kind of advice that social media consultants have been giving to brands for years now; it's time we begin to provide that same counsel to individuals, as well.