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The new network: Authenticity, anonymity and the digital divide


September 14, 2011

Google+ debuted in June and amassed its first 25 million users faster than any other social network, according to PC Magazine. This finally established Google’s social media presence, after its previous Wave and Buzz experiments received little fanfare. Google+ functions similarly to Facebook, including requiring users to register their real names.

Google experienced crisis-level backlash in July when the company enforced this policy and deleted thousands of pseudonym accounts and also those of some celebrities, tech gurus and people with uncommon names.

As a result, Google updated its policy and offered concessions such as notifying users with naming violations before deleting their accounts and creating an “other names” field.  While Google+ continues to grow, this name-transparency episode illustrates trust issues with digital citizens, social platforms and, by extension, brands.

Augie Ray, executive director of community and collaboration for United Services Automobile Association, an association dedicated to military personnel’s financial well-being, agrees that there are instances when anonymity can protect people online, though he generally prefers transparency.

“More business can be transacted when people are open,” he explains. “Trying to identify ‘@princess5827’ on Twitter is difficult, whereas if members post concerns on our Facebook wall, we can easily contact and assist them.”

Ray, a former Forrester social media analyst, thinks that Google is wise to follow Facebook’s lead regarding name transparency because it encourages authenticity.

Yet, we live in an era of asynchronous transparency where consumers leverage social networks to demand brand honesty but offer less details about themselves in return. Consider consumer “distress” messages on Twitter:  Some are legitimate pleas for help, while others are shortcut attempts for support or freebies.

This transparency imbalance did not always favor consumers. Brands more or less controlled their messages since advertising’s inception until the social-networking revolution.

Ray argues that this divide between brands and consumers impedes social networking’s vision for transparency. For instance, brands could post service-issue specifics that are customarily kept private when consumers post aggressive complaints online. 

Like it or not

Questionable online activities manifest in ways beyond anonymity and deception. Some real-life behaviors create confusion when exhibited online. Facebook Likes are one example. People often Like brands to get deals, not as an endorsement.

When Netflix announced subscription increases in July, thousands of angry customers posted negative comments on the company’s Facebook page, and many Liked the page in order to do so.  Some visitors may assume that those Likes are from adoring fans. The value of a Like depends on context and interpretation, which skew impact.

Communicators must be clear about their intentions online. Ray says FTC guidelines can aid Facebook transparency. The guidelines require that companies promoting customer endorsements disclose the material exchanges — or perks — offered.

“Transparency leads to authenticity then listening, which should lead to honest communication,” he says.  “This is what social media is all about.”

 

Ryan Zuk, APR Ryan Zuk, APR, is a media and analyst relations professional, Phoenix PRSA Chapter member and Sage North America representative. Zuk can be reached @ryanzuk on Twitter. He also blogs at criticalmasspr.com.
Email: ryanzuk at gmail dot com



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