Jan 252010

Time for corrective action.  I have stood and continue to stand among those calling for greater transparency in the public sphere, and particularly in the workings of government. I operate under the assumption that whatever I place online or in email is ultimately available for all to see, by accident or intention.  Everything I post to FaceBook is open and available. My blog doesn’t accept anonymous postings (I think). And when I see someone get caught thinking they were “talking in private,” I can’t help but smile a bit–didn’t they know how this all works.

Yet even given all that, radical transparency is not the whole story, not the desired goal in every circumstance, and hopefully, not yet the ultimate reality or default for online interactions. A couple of recent encounters brought me back to a more conscious stance on the positioning of transparency and anonymity as existing in more of a ying-yang relationship of necessary balance than a purely adversarial “either-or.” And I find myself falling back on a different meta-principle, among those I uphold in counterbalance with my respect for the tenets of Open Space: to wit, Everything is possible at any time, but not everything is helpful all the time.

[Just in case you wear out before reaching the end of this post, there are three cases to be made on the vital role of anonymity:

  • The public case in the context of participation
  • The private case in the context of mutual respect
  • The corporate case in the context of innovation

I was going to rationally organize my posting under these three headings, but perhaps the leaky margins better serve to make the overall point.]

In the first encounter, I heard a communications professor at a recent Journalism that Matters conference call out yet again for authentication technologies to validate online identities while also expressing concern for the excessive (and implied, unhealthy) exercise of multiple online personas by “young people.”

Two thoughts immediately came to mind: the Dalai Lama on Twitter (were you among the thousands last year who reflexively followed only to discover within about 48 hours that it wasn’t quite true? Of course, he may really be there now, but if so, I’d wager what’s in my wallet right now that there are several folks tending the profile.), and Kierkegaard (one of the more flagrant users of multiple pseudonyms, while John Le Carre, et al. more wimpishly use only one).  Of course it can be disappointing, sometimes even a sense of betrayal to discover I’ve been spoofed into believing that someone was not who they appeared to be. These days, however, I just kick myself for really knowing better that a reasonable, sometimes even unreasonable, skepticism is ALWAYS in order, online and face-to-face, even with the best of friends (who apparently did not send that recent Tweet about an online video I really MUST see RIGHT NOW, after submitting my login info ;-).

The quest for authentication, while certainly vital in some regards, nevertheless seems to harbor a potential illusion.

Too long ago to own up to–yes, measured in decades–I took a high school class on mass media, and was shocked, shocked to learn that something was not necessarily true simply because it appeared in the New York Times, or NewsWeek Magazine, or on the nightly news. Knowing the source still doesn’t guarantee the truth of the content, although it might indicate to some extent the margin of error, assuming one recognizes underlying, and perhaps unconscious biases, including my own. You must still exercise your own due diligence. Buyer beware, always!

Meanwhile, technologically forcing identities to the surface may not be universally healthy, at several levels. There are good reasons to allow room to explore, and even better ones, often life-or-death, for concealing identities and sources, for the sake of unearthing deeper truths.

The second encounter was a blog posting brought to my attention through Twitter describing a recent study on Anonymous Online Comments and Citizen Participation with Government. Widescale participation is impaired on multiple fronts when an anonymous option is not available. Yes, I am well aware through friends and colleagues in the public sector of the frustration generated by anonymous posters who are angry to the point of being abusive.  Nevertheless…there are important quiet voices that must be heard, especially when they feel at risk for any reason for making their thoughts known; and there are ways of modulating the louder voices.

Of course most would agree on the more extreme cases requiring anonymity: political dissidents residing  or maintaining families in less-the-open societies, whistle-blowers, those at risk of domestic abuse, vulnerable sources in investigative reporting.  But I think there are deeper, vital reasons for at least occasional relief from the otherwise “purifying gaze” of direct sunlight that so often symbolizes transparency.

Here’s the case in the framework of corporate innovation, based on my own experience at a national foundation. Be warned in advance that I’m liberally extending the scope of anonymity to encompass people and their ideas as deserving of a respectful distance, and yes, often concealment from perpetual public scrutiny. There is merit and necessity to being hidden, out of view.

For I suspect there are night-and-day cycles for people and ideas, like other living beings. Most if not all seeds germinate in the dark, under the protective blanket of soil.  And at key junctures, the developing “shoots” must be nurtured outside the range of view of management, co-workers, and the general public. I’m not talking about intellectual property or even privacy here; I’m referring to what I have experienced as the natural maturation of the best in people and the best in ideas. Another down-on-the farm comparison (it’s somewhat refreshing to not depend upon military or sports metaphors now and then): in the course of an Arctic agriculture project I learned that you can’t grow spinach under the Midnight Sun (the poor plants immediately bolt to seed under the constant sunlight before the leaves mature.)

I can’t count the times I threw out raw ideas to managers only to have my prize insights pretty routinely and soundly crumpled up and tossed into the dustbins of the current strategic plan–and being firmly instructed to “keep focused on my real job.” Constant, public, unreflected brainstorming is of very limited use, and does nothing for one’s reputation as an innovator. Trust me. Been there, done that.

So I learned to establish my own internal, informal skunkswork collaborations, for the most part through a sneaker network of folks who liked to push things around a little, maybe even toy with some prototypes to see what could happen. We were focused on easing the flow of information throughout the foundation, circumventing the bottleneck of constant filtering through the chain of command. Did my boss or even close colleagues on my own team always know what I was doing–what, do you think I was crazy–we all learn, we grow, we adapt–and hope that others benefit from the results of our meanderings without having to retrace the entire journey step by step. If people only knew what went into this…that no one else has to put up with in the same way.

Seeds germinate in the dark, and at key points, you entrust them to teams, who report back at some appropriate time, so the results, and perhaps but not always the process, can be brought back, reviewed and as appropriate incorporated into the corporate consciousness. There’s daytime, and there’s nighttime, and thus the world is created and refreshed in all its richness and abundance.

These are few of the Divine Secrets of the Innovation Sister/Brother-hood.

Besides, look, it’s in the ying-yang, the seeds of apparent opposites at the heart of each extreme.

There is no genuine transparency without a seed of anonymity, no genuine anonymity without a seed of transparency (oops, guess that could be another post).


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  6 Responses to “Anonymity as the Seed of Transparency”

  1. Very interesting post Ken.  I think that you are correct that there are times when anonymity serves a useful purpose, and I hadn’t really thought the issue through that well – so this was a very useful post!
    On the other hand,  I’m coming to believe that anonymity on the internet is for the most part bad.  I think that a lot of the worst aspects of interacting on the web would decrease if people were acting mostly under their own name.  That’s why I started doing everything with my real name starting last year.  Well, that and the fact that I’m horrendous at picking pseudonyms…

  2. Of course technology is increasingly rendering the argument for privacy and anonymity somewhat moot–if you know what you’re doing and how to look, you can pretty much figure out who anyone is these days.

    Nevertheless, I’m going to stand by my overall argument. At the extremes of transparency, vital information, critical insights may go unexpressed, may in practice be repressed, for fear of unintended or potentially misconstrued associations that in the end could fracture one’s public integrity or in the case of unpopular political stances, expose one to life-threatening situations. In my geekiness, I got to say, these are nontrivial risks/costs that must be considered. Ideas–and people–deserve certain protections–even if they are idiots; perhaps especially if they are idiots. The political realm has been far from forgiving these days, even decades after something stupid has been long paid for.

  3. Thanks for taking our post about anonymity to the next level. I added the main points from your article as an update at the bottom: http://athenabridge.wordpress.com/2009/08/09/data-about-anonymous-online-participation-with-government/

  4. […] Here is another post which specifies reasons why anonymous comments must be protected.  Also see Ken Gilligren’s extension of these concepts to […]

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