Transparency, Authenticity and Privacy in Social Media

Originally posted on Mark Schaefer‘s blog {grow} on October 4, 2011.

A few of you have likely noticed that this post wasn’t written by Mark, but by someone named Leslie Lewis.  That’s not my real name and you don’t need to know my real name.

Having worked in social media since 2005, I knew I needed a tightly controlled message and presence online.  You could Google my name and find my blog or find me on Twitter, LinkedIn, Flickr or Facebook.

I used my real name, shared real stories, photos and details from my life.  I was as transparent and authentic as I preached to my clients that they needed to be.

All of that ended in early 2010 when someone who knew me launched an online smear campaign with allegations that were wholly baseless and untrue but were professionally damaging.

Law enforcement was helpless to stop the flow of fake accounts in my name, due to issues of state, federal and international jurisdiction complications.  After consulting with several lawyers I was told that civil action would be long, disruptive and expensive process.  In the end I was told my best option would be to contact Google or LinkedIn every time a new one appeared.

After several months, I consulted with friends, family and people in the social media community, and I decided I needed to go “underground.” I locked down, and in several cases deleted, my social media presence.

Five years of community building and establishing a brand behind my name were gone.  For nine months I had virtually no social media footprint, but the attacks stopped.

The transparency that we all advocate to our clients was what was used to harm me.  While going underground brought an end to the attacks, it has hurt me professionally.  Social media strategy is a practical discipline: We show that we are able to do for our clients by doing for ourselves.

In December I inched back online, using Twitter with a pseudonym.  As I began making and rebuilding connections the pushback I have received from social media professionals on Twitter has been unexpected.  When my email address and Twitter name don’t correspond, I am frequently met with stark skepticism of my intentions or the implication that I am “doing social media wrong.”

As social media professionals we tend to conflate the concepts of “transparency” and “authenticity.”  Frequently they are used as synonyms for one another, or, that if one is not present it invalidates the other.

Transparency is not the same as authenticity and authenticity is not dependent on transparency.

In the real world we meet people every day and accept them at face value, rarely stopping to question their identity.  In real life we don’t demand the type of immediate transparency of each other that we do online.  The neighbor with the unlisted phone number, the friend who goes by his middle name or the parent with a different last name than their child; we don’t (or at least the polite among us don’t) demand explanations of them.

We shrug our shoulders at these incongruities and don’t allow them to take away from our enjoyment of, or the credibility of these individuals.  Why then, don’t we do this online?  I could just as easily be an SEO mole as the neighbor with the unlisted phone number could be a bank robber.  Why don’t we explain away similar incongruities in online identity that we do offline?

These are issues that are not new to online communication, yet they seem to linger.  We have all seen social media go wrong and unfortunately we have all seen it used as a weapon.  My situation is, sadly, not all that uncommon.  As a profession we need to move towards a framework wherein privacy and security concerns are not trumped by demands for transparency and authenticity.

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