The impact of declining anonymity on the web

Peter Friedman post by: Peter Friedman

(Editor’s note: The following post by Peter comes as a response to a recent New York Times article, “Upending Anonymity, These Days the Web Unmasks Everyone.” An abridged version of this response was also left as a direct comment to the article)

The article raises an important dynamic about the decline of anonymity with some positive and negative consequences. I’d like to elaborate on the very important positive social media aspect, which is … The Decline of Anonymity = Rise of Accountability.

Accountability stems from and is nurtured by identity. Since the early days of social media in the 1990s with The Well, AOL, and many other sites and online communities, we’ve seen that less anonymity means more identity, and in turn, greater accountability. More responsibility for one’s actions, and with that, better personal behavior, more transparency, and overall greater social good. Historically, anonymity tends to breed bad behavior online and off, and supports negative dynamics in our society.

In earlier days of social media, even with the negatives of anonymity, there were some positives. Gay people who wanted to discuss their lifestyle without being persecuted could do so. A political dissident in an oppressed country could speak up with less fear of reprisal. But with the more recent ubiquity, even these areas tend to be better off with less anonymity.

But the positives of identity are far stronger. Oppressed people are motivated and act on the truth revealed through social media.

At the recent NewFront 2011 conference, for example, Egyptian filmmaker Amr Salama spoke about how social media had exposed a fake photo that a government-run newspaper had published, purporting to show president Mubarak leading a Obama-Mubarak-Netanyahu walk out of the White House (it was actually Obama who was in front). People realized that if the government would fake that, it was probably faking everything else. As Egyptians saw others standing up for their freedom, verifiable through social media media, they found a spark, catalyst, and emotional support system for the Arab Spring.

Even Anthony Weiner’s fall can be attributed as much to his blatant effort to avoid accountability through lying. (Isn’t it always the cover-up that does people in?)

Transparency and authenticity are among the top must-do best practices we advise all our brand clients to follow. In a social crisis, even on substantive issues in which the company is clearly in the wrong, people will respond to authenticity. They will respect accountability, which is tied to true identity.

4 simple rules for social media today

1) Don’t do anything you aren’t prepared to be held accountable for. Isn’t this a basic lesson our parents teach us, offline or online?

2) Assume that anything you put online will be seen, and that you will be held accountable for it.

3If you don’t want to be held accountable online, then create a fantasy personality. But beware: You may still be found out. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with a fantasy personality, as long a it isn’t used to deceive or hurt. (There are game venues specifically for that.)

4) Be transparent, authentic, and accountable. Don’t try to control what you can’t control.

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