Why Anonymity is a Problem and How Facebook Connect Can Help

Does anyone remember Sutori.com? It came out in 2006 and has since gone offline. It gave people a space to rant or rave about brands. What ended up happening? It involves kindling, kerosene, and lots angry customers (*cough* UHaul) ... and that's about it.

explosion

Today, "telonu" allows people to anonymously post latest firings and layoffs, then leave their always-objective opinions. To their credit, they provide spaces for positive feedback (but, so did Sutori ... and their name wasn't "Tell on You"). I'm not a fan, mostly because of the anonymity rather than the concept. I agree with the telonu users, many of the company's people have written about on telonu need to change; they need to be held accountable.

I get the ideas here. Sometimes you would like advice, or the ability to ask questions anonymously. It probably helps to know that Company X is about to lay off 800 people. We all know it can be therapeutic to vent with others who feel the same pain, right? But, if the point of this is to affect true change, can it really work when so much anonymity is involved? I'm not sure it can.

My theory on why anonymity will always be less-than-effective:

 

  1. Anonymity Kills Clout. For the most part, we don't really trust anonymous opinions. We take them with a grain of salt. If someone isn't willing to attach his name to a product review, people will ask themselves if it's a credible review or just some punk with a personal vendetta.
  2. Numbers Matter. On the interwebs, anonymity has no true collective power. All it takes is a decent programmer to create 1,000 fake users to commence spamming.  If 1,000 anonymous people say something negative, we have no way of knowing if those are 1,000 actual individuals or 1 really pissed person.
  3. Anonymity Lets People/Companies Off the Hook. Regardless of the validity of an accuser's complaint, the accused can always fall back on, "Well, we're not even sure who the accuser is -- or if they're even real."
  4. People *Get* Spin. We trust our friends, but we don't always trust people we don't know -- especially if they don't reveal their identity. If we don't know their backgrounds, objectives, or motivations, we can assume that they'll have some agenda that benefits them. 
  5. Real Faces Help. Right or wrong, names without faces can easily become mere statistics. Connecting a face -- a real person with a real story -- offers the emotional connection and validity needed to affect true change. That's why at my previous job with International Justice Mission we worked so hard to tell real stories about real suffering -- the connection helps.

Enter Facebook Connect (the same thing Justin and Ryan blogged about recently). With Facebook Connect, those people have what telonu doesn't: Faces, names, real stories, real friends, and clout. If my friend (whom I trust) has 49 friends she trusts with the same issue, I might actually jump onboard even if I wasn't affected. Or, think about the HCBC example: A bunch of college students -- real college students -- hopped on Facebook and freaked out when HSBC quietly changed their student checking policy. I doubt that group could have accomplished true change if it was an email petition with 1,000 names at the bottom.

Removing anonymity also can foster genuine conversations and change between people and the companies they love. For example, when Tropicana changed their branding recently, people hated it. Now, Tropicana is changing it back. Why?

It was not the volume of the outcries that led to the corporate change of heart, Mr. Campbell said, because “it was a fraction of a percent of the people who buy the product.” Rather, the criticism is being heeded because it came, Mr. Campbell said in a telephone interview on Friday, from some of “our most loyal consumers.” (NYT Article)

They would have never known it was their most loyal customers if that "fraction of a percent" signed their emails "- Anonymous." The social space allows for real conversations with real people like never before, and I believe Facebook Connect can be the next step in that evolution.

What do you think? Is there space for this kind of anonymity on the web (aside from obvious personal information sites like banking, of course.)? Am I just missing the point of the "telonus" of the world? Maybe I should be more forthright about what I'm not talking about (Deep Throat certainly benefited from a bit of anonymity), but I think you get the point.

Josh Chambers

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Posted in Article Category: #Strategy
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