Accountability Over Anonymity
There is an emerging need to forge, manage, and even guard our digital alter egos. How we choose to meet this challenge will directly shape the culture of our online communities. We can allow the web to become a virtual Las Vegas with a hedonistic anonymity that leads to a “what-happens-online-stays-online” attitude. Or, we can think more like citizens and build a community based on shared authenticity and accountability.
Recent technological advances have provided amazing opportunities to reinvent ourselves and find new connections in ever-growing networks. It has opened the door for many to become whoever they’ve always wanted to be. One hilarious idea can make you an instant celebrity on YouTube. Starting a blog can gain you a legion of loyal readers. But this new found freedom is a call to be creative, to be ourselves, and to be authentically good citizens.
What makes you credible and interesting is your unique personality. Your background. Your perspective.
Loose Lips Sink Ships
You’ve no doubt heard horror stories of people being fired or dumped over a single indiscretion online. Some folks in the ensuing discussion will vehemently insist on the need for increased anonymity and privacy on the web. They will advocate the creation of clean email accounts, cryptic screen-names, and non-discernable profile pictures. Remain ambiguous and you can say whatever you want without the possibility of negative repercussions—problem solved!
Not so fast. Turns out, the real people, warts included, are the real heart of social web.
Shine a Light
In part, this explains why MySpace languishes while Facebook continues to grow. After a certain point, no one on MySpace seemed real any more. All ties with the known universe were severed and it just felt like a lame Halloween party. This was great at first, but the buzz of anonymity quickly turned into a hangover. Facebook has plenty of shortcomings, but the fact that it’s tethered to existing (read trusted) networks in the real world is a huge key to it’s success.
One of the foundational bonds of any sustainable community is a shared code of conduct that is adopted and enforced together. It’s worked on Craigslist and countless other self-moderated websites and it will work across the broader social web.
Sadly, there are people in places like Iran and China who must maintain a certain level of anonymity for reasons of personal safety. But even in these places, you can see traces of the underlying need for authenticity. When a dissident rant emerges on a website belonging to a known individual, it’s much more likely to make the jump from Twitter to CNN and be regarded as meaningful, actionable journalism. People with hidden motives operate in the shadows, but honest citizens are happy to stand in the light.
Masking our true identity online is extremely harmful to the future of social media. At the end of the day, the actual people associated with online identities are what make them relevant, trustworthy, and worth investing in. I have very little interest in building relationships with people living in a world without consequence. Therefore, I propose that we opt for online citizenship. In the short-term, this will be less fun. A sweeping, self-inflicted reduction in jackassery. Long-term, though, I think we’ll all be okay with less of this sort of content, and get used to people behaving more like—well—actual people.
You Are What You Tweet
I’m certainly not envisioning a world free of smut, spam and slander. There will still be plenty of content online you wish you hadn’t seen. But when it comes to standards for interaction, I’m proposing a middle-ground. A cooperation for our common sanity. You need to be okay with not posting venomous rants about your boss, and your boss needs to be okay with you uploading pictures of your recent trip to Cancun. This authenticity thing goes both ways. Real people drink beer. Real people have messy relationships. Collectively, we’re just going to have to be okay with that.
That said, there will be consequences for the content you choose to publish. If you post images of you using illicit substances or tweet about patronizing the local gentleman’s club, be prepared for us to know you’ve done those things—and expect for them to have ramifications with your employer and perhaps your spouse. Let your actions be consistent with the person you want to be. That way you can claim ownership for your identity both on- and offline. If you have no taste, no self-control, or no sense of boundaries, this will be a problem for you—but I’m guessing it already is.
For most of us, allowing our realities to show through while striving to be good citizens will go a long way toward fostering an authentic and sustainable community.