An Argument Against Transparency
“The same web sites created as places for candid talk, about local news and politics are also hubs of unsubstantiated gossip, stirring widespread resentment in communities where ties run deep, memories run long, and anonymity is something of a novel concept.”
– A.G. Sulzberger, ‘In Small Towns, Gossip Moves To The Web, And Turns Vicious’
These days we hear a tremendous amount of discussion, especially in the real estate space, about transparency. Data transparency, opening conversation about our process, disclosure of agent performance both past, present and seemingly future, and as our industry embraces more of a comprehensive digital approach, there’s ever downward pressure on being as open as possible. Indeed, it’s something that’s been the source of much debate surrounding the future of the MLS.
Many will advocate that the more open our industry becomes, especially online, the maximum exposure in the name of honesty we’ll all get. While it’s inherently thorny to define what really constitutes ‘open’ on the web (I’d refer you to the infrastructure discussions between Apple / iOS and Google / Android for more on that), one of the more interesting places to start is with our own identities as they exist within social networks. Data aside, let’s start with ourselves. Specifically, do people (and I include real estate professionals in that grouping), behave better when forced to use their real names, and disclose information about themselves at scale?
The answer isn’t as clear cut as you might think, and there’s some fascinating examples of this being developed. At the heart of one of these conversations is Google’s real name policy in Google Plus. Their approach takes a position that the way to maximize civility online is to abolish anonymity. This is one of the contributing factors to their current position on allowing brands to exist within their service, in favor of growing their user base with what they perceive (or at least encourage) to be ‘real’ people. Brands on social networks, with the possible exception of Twitter, tend to be nameless, faceless entities. This seems particularly true of platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, Tumblr or Foursquare, where the administrator is often hidden behind a logo-based avatar. Less so in Twitter, but this whole conversation is deliberately made absent in Google Plus.
“Of course, there are many legitimate reasons for people to want to remain anonymous, including fear of persecution. And the First Amendment does grant some level of protection to anonymous speech.
But in practice, online anonymity is seeping away. A growing body of legal decisions is making it easier for lawyers to use legal proceedings to unmask people who write anonymous blogs or make anonymous comments on public Web sites.
“You can claim anonymity, but there is a range of things that a judge will use to determine whether you have used your anonymity responsibly,” says Judith Donath, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.”
– Kevin Whitelaw: ‘Gotcha! Why Online Anonymity May Be Fading’
Google’s often quoted position, especially in reference to Facebook, is that they wish to build an ‘identity service’ rather than a social network. They are attempting to differentiate themselves from the enormous market share currently owned by Facebook’s ‘social’ approach by integrating Google Plus features (such as the +1 button) deeply into their already comprehensive suite of products. My sense is that we’ll see Google’s platforms such as Maps, YouTube, Mail and more begin to pull in Google Plus information in the way that we’re already beginning to see with Search. In contrast, this might perhaps be where a lot of the criticism directed towards the lack of conversations currently present in Google Plus is coming from. It’s a place to manage your online persona, and not explicitly positioned as a way to connect with others. While I accept that there a many who find tremendous engagement on the platform, they are still very much in the minority compared to the overall user base.
Facebook vs. Google Plus Source: Single Grain
But therein lies the problem with Google’s approach. How do you determine if a name is ‘real’? Do people behave better if forced to use their real names, or can they hide behind the veil of anonymity and tell others what they really think? Don’t people feel it’s easier to comment without fear or reprisal? Anyone wishing to take a deep dive on this topic will enjoy James Surowiecki’s ‘The Wisdom Of Crowds’.
As Cory Doctorow eloquently suggests “The world doesn’t improve when people have less critical discourse”. The forced registration of actual names, even going so far as to propose steps to scan and submit federal identity documents by way of verification, on the one hand holds the user accountable for their actions, but in another sense discourages the open nature of the web itself. Is there a balance that can be struck between the two? Especially when many social networks such as Facebook exert a pressure on non-users to share more and more each year?
This simplistic theory of critical discourse is perfectly incoherent, implying that in a marketplace, the only role “consumers” have is to buy things or not buy things, use things or not use things, and that these decisions should not be informed by vigorous debate and discussion, but only by marketing messages.
After all, no one forces anyone to eat at a restaurant, so why should we review it? No one forces you to see a movie, so why have any informed public discussion about which movie you should see this weekend? No one forces you to take a job, so why rank employers? No one forces you to go to universities, so why should we debate which ones are best and which ones are worst?
– Cory Doctorow: ‘Google Plus Forces Us To Discuss Identity’
Does forcing people to declare their actual names improve the online social experience? This question assumes one fundamental problem – that we’re the same person in all contexts, which of course isn’t true, and this is something I see the real estate industry wrestling with all the time. The question “Should I have a separate business page for my listings on Facebook?” is unfortunately still a very common one. While easily dispatched with some education on filtering and friend / follower grouping, the concern behind the question is “I’m not always the same person online but I still want to participate”. This is the important point here – while larger social networks promise the glittering lure of bringing us closer and closer together, to the point where geographic boundaries are rendered obsolete, there is increasing value in privacy, anonymity, and genuine digital downtime.
These needs are an increasing problem in a climate where time is the new brand-driven commodity for advertisers, and when users are getting increasingly smarter at tuning out those things we have little interest in consuming. The web is a great place to be heard, but it’s an even better place to listen, and listening anonymously can often be a very powerful approach. Safely holding others at a distance online is becoming one of the more powerful ways to use and consume digital media, free of the intrusion of a constant barrage of digital ‘asks’ either for likes, follows, views, reads or otherwise.
Of course, there’s many environments where online anonymity can be very powerful, or in fact, essential. Take the recent unrest and mobilization in The Middle East, where much of the organization happened online. Fearing persecution, users needed anonymity in order to protest effectively at all.
Very often in online real estate, the visitors to our websites, blogs, Facebook pages and other attempts at outreach remain just that, completely anonymous. Outside of some basic analytics information regarding location, perhaps how long they visited, and what they did once they arrived, it’s inherently tricky to get any sense of who these people really are and what makes them tick. This is one of the huge obstacles for digital marketers over the next five to ten years. As more people share more information online (‘Zuckerberg’s Law’ suggests that this doubles every 12 months: http://nyti.ms/byeNGm), this may recede, but with concrete concerns over information collection, privacy and personal data sharing, it’s thick with controversy already. For many, the Utopia of a fully transparent online user base will seem a long way in the future.
People often ask me what my favorite apps are. Sure, like everyone else I love Angry Birds and Foursquare, and consume most of my news now through apps such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, but it’s those smaller, scrappier apps that truly connect people in unexpected, unique and fascinating ways that really hold my interest. A lot of these kinds of services have emerged from events such as the recent Global Foursquare Hackathon, which pitted developers from all over the world to come up with the best new service they could, using the Foursquare API. The results are always astounding, and I’d encourage you to check out the winners here. The ‘Plan Your Next Trip’ service is a must for anyone attending Real Estate Connect in New York next January.
These apps are all wonderful, but there’s one that uses the idea of anonymity to create a truly magical, often emotional, and always fascinating experience: PostSecret. If you’re not familiar with the already popular PostSecret website, it started as a daily blog where users would submit postcards (through the mail) to the site’s founder, Frank Warren, who would post them each day. The archives are still up and running at http://www.postsecret.com/, and there’s a good amount of backstory here: http://cnet.co/f8DJZS.
For those unfamiliar with PostSecret, it’s the project Warren has been doing for several years where he encourages the public to send him anonymous postcards with some sort of personal secret. Over the years, he has collected more than 200,000 of the cards, published four compilations of them, and created a blog community where people can view many of those cards and the secrets they contain.
To illustrate what he meant, and to show the audience how personal the secrets can be, he read a series of the postcards he had brought with him.
One, a picture of a sonogram with a child in it read, “I passed her at the store the other day. I wonder if she knows. I almost had his child. I wonder if I should tell her.”
Another read, “My boyfriend is deaf, and when we have sex, I scream my ex’s name.”
– Daniel Terdiman: PostSecret’s Frank Warren Brings Tears To SWSWi Crowd
In short, it’s one of the most touching, most honest, and genuinely most human things I have ever seen exist on the web. It’s a fantastic example of the web working to bring us together emotionally.
And it’s all anonymous.
Deliberately so, the idea being that through the anonymous sharing of a deep, troubling secret, somehow the problem dissolves, and it’s a cleansing means of dealing with something you’re going through. The service has traditionally existed as a photo blog, but with their move into the mobile space, now anyone can post their own secrets, and browse those from users nearby. ‘Nearby’, to clarify, does not mean that the secrets are being geo-tagged, it simply records the very vague general area in which the post was created – the service does not record any personal information (unless you wish it to, and then it’s always password-protected on your own device).
Voyeurism aside, it’s an incredibly compelling product, and one that has a truly unique perspective on those words we often use to describe what we do:
There’s definitely a community there, although no-one knows each other.
There’s engagement there although no-one knows what anyone else is looking at.
And perhaps most telling, is the idea that the content often makes a truly meaningful, cathartic, long-lasting connection with the user.
It’s thoughtful, genuine, often funny, and always compelling. In many ways it achieves everything that social media aspires to be, by breaking every single piece of advice you’d have ever received.
So when we’re thinking about the transparency conversation, think about what we really mean by that. Transparency means a lot more than simply handing over data, and there are many strong arguments against opening up completely. Full transparency isn’t something most of us are comfortable with yet in our personal lives, but are being very strongly encouraged to do in our professional lives. My sense is that this is the wrong way around. The more comfortable we are with sharing personal information about ourselves, the more relaxed we’ll be able sharing those particular insights about our working habits. Perhaps online anonymity will allow us to open up on both fronts.
“The funny thing about secrets is… sometimes it’s better when you share them.”