Where Everybody Knows Your Name…

internetdogThere’s a bit of a tempest brewing over the behavior of John Mackey, CEO at Whole Foods. Seems Mr. Mackey was a regular on a Yahoo! financial forum, where, under a pseudonym, he talked up his company. He also used that pseud to cast aspersions on Wild Oats, which is a target for acquisition by Whole Foods.

According to a  Reuters article “Mackey said he “posted on Yahoo! under a pseudonym because I had fun doing it. Many people post on bulletin boards using pseudonyms.”

He’s absolutely right. It’s fun to post to message boards. And lots of people do it under pseudonyms.

There’s nothing illegal about it.

Sometimes, though, doing this sort of thing will look pretty bad when the FTC gets around to suing to prevent an acquisition your company is trying to make.

Anonymity and pseudonymity have a valid place in human communication. With the advent of the Internet, that place has grown.  Most folks would agree that it’s better that children, especially, participate in public forums under pseudonyms rather than release information which would make it easy for predators to track them down in person.

The freedom which anonymity and pseudonymity permit — the ability to say what one will without fear of consequences — is a two-edged sword.  Certainly, that freedom can be critical in enabling whistle-blowing where reports of illegal or dangerous behavior would otherwise not be made because the reporters risk their livelihood. It also is useful in support forums, where people are talking about extremely sensitive personal information.  But that freedom also permits participants to engage in irresponsible behavior which runs the gamut from stretching the truth to issuing hurtful personal attacks on other participants.  Anonymity and pseudonymity also prevent the transference of respect gained for excellent contributions to a space into the contributor’s offline life.

It’s our experience that if the purpose of a discussion space is the exchange of valuable information,  it’s critical that participants be identified by their real names. Otherwise, it’s simply impossible for participants to perform the essential task of “considering the source.”  Spaces where people contribute under their real names are more readily integrated into the participants’ offline lives.  It becomes more worthwhile to take the time to post that tidbit which could help your colleagues when your boss knows that it’s you who made that contribution.  And of course, it’s a lot easier to maintain decorum when everyone knows that they will be held accountable for what is done under their name.

Mackey has done nothing illegal, but his behavior strikes a lot of people as unethical.  Just as we structure our workplaces and other organizations to encourage ethical, productive, responsible behavior, we need to structure our online spaces to do the same. Requiring that people identify themselves using the name they use everywhere else in their lives is one of the better ways to harness the power of personal accountability towards that end.