Does transparency harm sincerity in business social networking

Summary : social networks, most of all in a business context, need trust. And trust needs transparency. Are there exceptions to this statement everyone agrees with ? Obviously yes. Because transparency brings into interactions a lot of of elements that cause interference on its quality, lead to irrational decisions regarding to the intrinsic quality of the business proposition In short, transparency harms sincerity. The example of an anonymous social networking platform raises questions such as : trusting people vs. trusting the system, anonymity vs not being identifiable and, at the end, makes us wonder if too much transparency and people centricity do not play against the purpose of a business relationship.

Specialists have been discussing whether people should be able to be anonymous or not on social networks. Some, like Google +, want to force people to use their real identity instead of pseudonyms while other gives them the choice. Beyond that there are usages and social proprieties that encourage such or such beavior depending on the platform. There are many reasons to use a pseudo on twitter (one of them being as simple as the 140 characters limit…) but doing so on Facebook or, most of all, on twitter, is irrelevant.

I’ve I’ve been asked the question a couple of weeks ago I would have say I would prefer if anyone uses his own identity. Having a rather business-oriented use of all these tools, I like to know who I’m talking with. In the same way, I can accept to “like” a brand page on Facebook but I will never become “friend” with brands misusing individual profiles. As for twitter I distinguish between non-identifiable pseudos and identifiable ones : people may use pseudos for many reasons while not hiding the identity of the person behind the account.

Of course we have to take into account the case of some totalitarian regimes, risks related to one’s job and employer….that may cause legitimate exceptions. But, a priori, I would have said I prefered that anyone could be identifiable. That was before a meeting that happened in september.

A friend came and told me “I need to show you one thing…an anonymous social network”. “A what ?”. “A social network relying on people being anonymous”. Such a thing should have made me laugh but knowing this friend quite well I told to myself there were reasons why he wanted me to have a look at his discovery.

It’s a business social network like Linkedin but with a huge difference. People register with their real name (which is validated) and, rather than inviting their whole network on the platform, they only disclaim the names of the people they know. They only give the names to the platform (which have only a relative value) but not the contact’s email address. If, for example, I disclaim I know  Anthony Poncier,anyone trying to get in touch with him with have to explain me why. Then a discussion starts, aiming at helping me deciding whether it makes sense for Anthony to accept of not. And this conversation takes place anonymously (I don’t know who is the person requesting an introduction, the person does not know that I am the connection…à. I can decide to stop because I think it’s not worth or think that it would be a good idea for them to meet. In this case we can stop being anonymous, connect people and even discuss the terms of the connection (connection fees for example, if things end with a juicy business deal).

While anonymity ? I had the opportunity to discuss this point with  Philippe Mangeard, the founder of the JKPM network.

The idea relies on a simple principle ; relational shyness. When we know someone we tend to act in an irrational manner in our business relationship. Not daring saying no, not daring saying everything because it’s always easier to talk about our projects, challenges, problems with people we know less…and don’t know lots of our contacts, not daring to approach a person because he or she does not look worth… In short, there are a lot of clouds that disrupt business relationships which have one single purpose : having a meeting to make a deal. If the deal is good the person don’t matter. Ditto if the deal is bad. In short, transparency harms sincerity.

Transparency on people’s identities prevents from a healthy and positive business relationships. It leads to accepting things that should have been refused and refuse good opportunities.

Surprising ? That what my first thought. But, at the end, it’s quite true : we often say more to people we don’t know much than to our very close contacts. It happens for one reason : the relationship is biased because of too much subjective things that play against our objective.

And what’s about trust in all that ? Trust is one of the essential pillar in any social networking approach and won’t exist if people are anonymous. It’s something I keep on thinking of but here are my first thoughts :

– trust can move to the system. I don’t know the person but I know she had  to be accepted by other people to came in.

– anonymity does not means hidden identity. First, at a given moment, people may decide to disclose their identity. Then because not knowing who the person is does not mean that she’s not identifiable. The “system” knows her. It needs, of course, a reliable and trustworthy system to manage digital identities.

Now let’s extrapolate so internal social networks platforms.

99% of projects show one thing ; people need to be identifiable with their real names. But the remaining 1% are very meaningful.

I once saw a project where anonymity was the rule to make people dare sharing their opinion. The the most “brilliant’ ones where gathered in a smaller group where their identity was known. In another one, people had the choice but even those who chose a pseudo made themselve identifiable. The pseudo was not a way to hide but, on the contrary, a way to deliver a message.

I will end with this enterprise that was organizing “internal idea markets” a couple of years ago. Not on an online platform but in real life, gathering people in a special context (dressing-up, staging). When I showed by surprise I was answered : ” a worker from an assembly line won’t say the worldwide director of processes that ‘your stuff is not working and can be improved’. But Darth Vader can say it to Snow White”.

What conclusions can be drawn ? It’s still work in progress as I write but :

– any good principle has exceptions

– anonymity does not means not being identifiable

– trust can move from the person to the system

– the personal halo that comes with anyone’s identity can harm business relationships, bringing the focus on the person instead of on the intrinsic value of the proposition.

– digital id systems will become key in “non enterprise social network” (enterprise one having their own identification systems).


So, does transparency harm sincerity ? The discussion is far from being over. But one thing is sure : industry leaders seem not to het it. Look how Mark Zukerberg was embarrassed by the question and failed to answer.



Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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