Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Google+ and Social Media: The Future Is Not Anonymous

It is amazing to me that social media professionals, after years of delivering the message to organizations that transparency is a requirement, are suddenly shocked to find transparency is a two-way street. I've read dozens of blog posts by people gnashing their teeth at 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.


byronfernandez said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
byronfernandez said...

This was spot-on Augie.

Especially liked your counter for "metaphor some use when criticizing Google's real name policy is that of walking through a public space where no one knows your name."

Reminds me of a favorite quote: "Esse quam videri (to Be, rather than to appear)"

Thanks for sharing

Augie Ray said...

Thanks Byron. That's the quite the heady quote for early in the morning. I'm going to have to ponder "Esse quam videri!"

JoeCo said...

Let me read this back to you Augie: anonymity is going away because we can't conduct business that way. But what percentage of human interaction, online or off, consists of doing business?

But wait, I'll help you defend yourself - just say that this is an unfair question to ask of someone in the high-tech industry.:)

Enjoying your stuff as always.


Augie Ray said...

As I noted in the post, there is a place for anonymous posting, but real business will require identity. As for what percentage of human interaction consists of doing business, I'll turn that question around on you: What percentage of human interaction requires you to know the person with whom you're interacting. How much of your interactions, online or off, consists of you communicating with anonymous people?

Business isn't anonymous. Dating isn't anonymous. Do you purchase gas from a stranger on the corner holding a gallon jug, or do you go to an identifiable brand over a service station. Your doctor--do you know who he is and what his background is? Coworkers--do they wear masks? Do you hire people without reference checks? When you go out for lunch, you may know know the name of your server, but do you buy something from a guy with a cooler standing on the curb or head to an identifiable brand you trust? If you need help, you may not know the cop you wave down, but you'll recognize the logo on the side of his car as something identifiable and trusted, won't you?

Sounds to me like most of your and my lives are spent dealing with people we know, not anonymous strangers.

kamikyo said...

Even if we limit the discussion of anonymity to doing business, business does not require real identity it requires trust - they aren't the same thing, which I think is the mistake you are making. To use one of your examples, when I purchase gas from the station down the street, I may not even see the human being who works there, much less know their name, gender, etc. If I purchase with cash or a visa gift card, they don't need to know my name or information either. I choose the gas station because of factors like proximity, cleanliness, etc. Even the brand is a fictitious name, and the identity of its officers or directors is of supreme unimportance to me. The brand has gained its reputation, not through full disclosure, but through service, marketing and word of mouth. Or to pick an online example, it does not matter to me if the eBay seller I buy from is Jane Q. Public or t0ps3ll3rz999, I'll be checking their seller reputation before I make a purchase.

But I see that you soften your point in the comments, equating brand to identity. I can definitely agree with the importance you place on trust and reputation with a brand - but I think you have the cause and effect reversed. Trust and reputation are what gives a brand identity its value, not the other way around. Just because I use a real name does not mean I am trustworthy, and because I am doing business under a fictitious or unknown name does not make me untrustworthy. Trust is required, but we choose to trust others for many reasons of which identity is just one (and not even frequently the most important).

JoeCo said...

You've convinced me (twice) that business requires real names. But I don't think I've convinced you that while business involves social interactions, not all social interactions, or even most social interactions, are business. For most of us, I mean.

There's plenty of anonymity in everyday life. If you live in teh city, you'll likely have many interactions every day with people whose names you will never know.

Even people we interact with in business often don't disclose their full name. Do you remember the last name of the person who helped you the last time you called your broadband provider for technical support? You probably don't, because she didn't tell you her last name, because she, unlike her employer, is an individual, and individuals, by law and convention, have a right to privacy that corporations do not have.

Corporate transparency and personal privacy aren't the same thing, or really even related things. Because I expect Kellogg's to list the ingredients of Frosted Flakes doesn't mean that I have to disclose to Kellogg's the names of my children. Think of some other examples and you'll quickly see how something that sounds logical is actually quite perverse in practice.

But as I said I think you're giving voice to a perspective that's pretty widely held, and I may be wrong in my skepticism that "everything is going real name" online.

It wasn't so long ago that almost everything regular users contributed online was pseudonymous. I often wonder whether real-name networks - outside of professional or business-oriented sites - only came into widespread use because people mistakenly believed that they were private networks for their friends, rather than the public networks they have become.

Augie Ray said...

JoeCo and Kamikyo,

I know some will disagree, particularly the more libertarian minded. But cash is dying, and gift, debit and credit cards all permit authentication and tracking. In our future of NFC on phones, RFD on products and facial recognition, the reality is that we will not be a more opaque society than we are today.

I agree that trust can be associated with BlueGuy303030 and not just James Smith, but I still see the world becoming more and more transparent. It isn't just brands that face the harsh light of forced transparency. You can disagree, but I'll stick by my prediction that five years from now, online profiles and relationships will be far more transparent and identifiable than they are now.

Thanks for the challenging dialog. I appreciate it!

JoeCo said...

Thanks back at you, Augie. Definitely fun to speculate on where this is all going ...

Danny Brown said...

Hi Augie,

Great stuff here, mate, and some solid points all round.

The big issue I have with Klout is not so much their creation of your profile, but the pain in the ass to remove yourself.

You shouldn't have to go through multiple hoops to delete an account, or have your profile removed upon request. Yet Klout makes it harder than breaking into Fort Knox, and that's not really good enough in this day and age.

Cheers, sir!

Augie Ray said...

Thanks Danny, I appreciate your very reasonable response to my post. But, I have a provocative question to ask: Why should you be able to remove yourself from Klout?

Your posts are all public. You've garnered considerable benefit from the influence you've created using free tools. So, if you're choosing to be public, should you (or any individual) have the right to tell others what to do with your info. Can we say, "You have the right to listen to me but others cannot. You have the right to learn from me but others may not. You have the right to be influenced by me but others may not notice?"

That's the key to what I'm suggesting. Public is public. We cannot be public and gain tremendous benefit from the way people access and use our public info, but then try to control the way others try to access and use that same public info.

We've forced companies to be more transparent--next it's our turn. If someone doesn't like being in Klout, the solution is easy--shut down or protect your Twitter feed. If one chooses to avail themselves of the benefit of being public, then they have to accept the challenges and uncomfortableness that comes with it.

I sound like I am talking to a celeb about paparazzi, but it's the same dynamic. If those of us who choose to be public and enhance our careers by being so don't like it, there is an option--not removing ourselves from databases but choosing to be private, instead.

I appreciate the thoughtful dialog, Danny. Thanks.

Danny Brown said...

@Augie - Hey there sir, great questions, and valid points. I think your sentence here, though, offers the biggest reason (or one of them) against Klout's current methods:

"So, if you're choosing to be public, should you (or any individual) have the right to tell others what to do with your info."

If that information is wrong, then yes.

The easiest comparison, I guess, is with the credit scoring system. They have "influence" over your life - what kind of job you can get, can you buy a home, car, get a loan, etc. Now, they admit that sometimes their information is wrong, and they will update it. Additionally, after a certain amount of time, bad credit info comes off your record. So, in essence, you can be "removed".

Switch that over to Klout. Their algorithm is messed up - I was an expert in "sheep", according to them:


Say someone was Googling for a sheep expert, found me, I'm shady and take their cash anyway, but can't give them any solid advice about sheep, except it tastes great with mint sauce.

Additionally, Klout describes itself as "The Standard For Influence", yet it uses limited platforms and has no idea how that reflects on offline actions.

Perhaps the biggest issue, though, is that companies are beginning to look at Klout scores in the hiring process, and that could stop an incredibly talented individual being passed by, for someone that's popular online but has no business acumen.

Klout has too many wrong variables about it that it's completely unreliable. They're also very reticent about their algorithm, how it affects people, etc.

With FICO, they need to be regulated because of the damage the wrong credit score can do.

Klout isn't regulated, yet has a ton of incorrect information on people that could affect their long-term success.

A perfect example of this is Megan Berry (their marketing manager), and her advice to anyone now wishing to be measured by Klout - make your social networks private.

So, the best advice to people that make a living (or some of it) online is to remove the visibility of your online self? That seems a bit backward, to say the least, mate.

For that reason alone, as well as just being ethical and respecting people's requests, you should have the ability to be removed easily.

Augie Ray said...


I had no idea you were an expert in sheep, also! You are a man of many talents!

Point very well taken--while I think sites like Klout still have a right to include and use publicly posted info, I think we must have an opportunity to correct incorrect info out there (although, do you feel the same about Rick Santorum? Should he be able to "correct" what Dan Savage did to Santorum's name? One man's "correct" is another man's "manipulate," sometimes.)

Thanks again for the insights!

Danny Brown said...

Damn you for playing the Santorum card, Ray!!! ;-)