Category Archives: transparency

Danah Boyd and transparent light

If you don’t follow the mind of Danah Boyd, Google her and get on with it. She’s the leading ethnographic researcher on social media. Here, in an excerpt from her recent dual speeches at Supernova and Le Web, she explores a gaping void in how we use social media to listen:

The public and networked nature of the Internet creates the potential for visibility. We have the ability to see into the lives of so many people who are different than us. But only when we choose to look. So who is looking? Why are they looking? And in what context are they interpreting what they see?

“By and large, those who are looking are those who hold power over the person being observed. Parents look. Teachers look. Employers look. Governments look. Corporations look. These people are often looking to judge or manipulate. Given the powerful position they are in, those doing the looking often think that they have the right to look. The excuse is simple: “it’s public.” But do they have the right to judge? The right to manipulate? This, of course, is the essence of conversations about surveillance. And so we argue and argue and argue about the right to privacy in public spaces.

“But privacy is a complex topic. We used to argue for a right to privacy to justify what happens in the domestic sphere, including domestic violence. The idea that domestic violence was once acceptable is hard to imagine today, in this world, but not that long ago, the logic used to go: ‘she’s my wife, it’s my home, I can do whatever I want to her.’ We cannot use privacy to justify the right to abuse people in private. But we also can’t use privacy to justify not looking when people are hurting or when they’re crying out for help. We need to find a balance that allow us to have control over our information, but also be heard when we are in need of help and support.

“So I want to twist this around for a moment. When should we be looking? Not looking to judge or manipulate, but looking to learn, support, or evolve? Shouldn’t we be looking for the at-risk kids who are in trouble? Shouldn’t we be willing to see their stories, their pain, their hurt? So that we can help them? Shouldn’t we be looking to see the world more broadly? Shouldn’t we be willing to see in order to learn and transform the society we live in? This is the essence of what Jane Jacobs called ‘eyes on the street’.

“It breaks my heart that there are youth out there, crying out for help. And no one is listening.”

Danah’s complete speech is here. Image: Gabriela Camerotti.

Corporations in swimsuits: Are you faking social media?

Digital strategist Jordan Julien got us thinking about “synthetic authenticity,” the risk large corporations face as they try to engage customers in social media. The problem, Jordan says, is social media tools were built for individual people to interact with each other, but suddenly faceless entities — big brands with big names — are entering the space.

This creates a cognitive dissonance that can erode trust. Say you lob a question at Nike Plus on Twitter and get a response. Who wrote it? Do you trust their opinion? Is it a real person’s thought, or a brand spinning its own future sales?

Jordan suggests one solution is to add real faces to your corporate persona. Instead of trying to make a brand act human, put real humans in charge. Earlier this year Mashable listed its favorite 40 companies on Twitter; the list is worth reviewing to see how “human” they act. Here is Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas responding to a guest:

OK, that’s a start. Luxor gives us an attractive woman in a swimsuit chatting about hot dogs. But the most authentic brands online are the ones that give us real people’s names. Surprisingly, the auto industry has been leading this charge. Scott Monty at Ford gets press, but here’s Adam Denison, PR guy for Chevy, offering a human connection:

What? A Chevy marketing executive is asking for help building PowerPoint? Exactly. Suddenly the big auto brand seems like a potential colleague, a guy looking for advice. While Adam uses Twitter to answer questions about Camaros and promote his brand, he also chats about Mormon missionaries, crows about BYU football, hints he is an avid golfer, and wades into debates about Swine Flu. You know. A quirky, opinionated, helpful real human being. If we ever considered a Chevy, we’d reach out to him instantly.

Yes, it’s a risk to let real people become the touchpoints between the brand you’ve carefully crafted for decades and the consumers who use it. But the bigger risk is you blow it, eroding trust from an audience that will tune you out. If even giant IBM can have Twitter streams authored by real people, so can you.

Graphic: The Jordan Rules

How transparent are you?

An Australian blogger we know under the nom de plume Kelpenhagen wrote a great bit recently on transparency — asking how much personal information she or anyone should reveal online. Anonymity has its merits; it can intrigue (think Joe Klein as Anonymous writing about Bill Clinton) and protect (think about who you really are, where you live, and whether the world should track your personal dating habits).

Personally, we’ve almost given up on hiding anything. If you work in any supply chain — as a manager or marketing executive or ad agency director — you must balance the fear of upsetting your clients or suppliers or employees with your opinions vs. not being “real” and never making a connection. The most nimble modern communicators, such as Scott Monty of Ford or Tony Hsieh of Zappos, use blogs and Twitter to connect with thousands as real people. There are idiocies emerging, too. Many use social media to broadcast all about themselves, like that accountant you met at the holiday party who just won’t shut up about a tax-savings scheme. If you do expose your real identity, try to listen more than you talk. If you publish a book, drop a hint but for god’s sake don’t write 30 blog posts about it.

The most terrifying trap of social media is for people to get caught up in self-monitoring, tracking how many “followers” they have on Twitter or the number of daily readers of their blog. If you reveal yourself, and if you speak for an organization, the meaning of what you say will go further than the number of links you create to the world.

Our own recommendation is to be real, be open, and let the chips fall where they may. In this new age of the internet, people will find you if they want anyway. We just started a professional relationship with Segway and yesterday sent them a clip of a monkey falling off the two-wheeled gyro-scooter. For a second, we feared they might be offended. But what the hell. Laughing is part of who we are.

Photo by Phil H.