The Internet: From Anonymity to Instant Accountability

by Mielle Sullivan, Janus Networks
In the beginning of the web, it was a wild frontier of anonymity. Nothing that was written was held to any kind of accountability. It was almost an informational Las Vegas where the most exciting but unreliable personas came to play.  But recently the internet has made enormous steps to actually become the opposite– a place of instant accountability.

The consequences of this are becoming evident, but what I believe is the logical conclusion is not obvious. Yet.

The biggest reason for death of www wild frontier is that the web became a market place, not just of goods, but of ideas. If you want someone to invest even their attention in you on today’s internet, you’ve got to be a trustworthy source or…. very entertaining. If you actually want them to buy something from you, you’ve got to have a good reputation. And when I say good, I mean nearly spotless. One bad review on Yelp or unhappy ebay costumer can hurt you. All your mistakes are now archived and instantly accessible to anyone. 

But even more motivating than a sale, is establishing a reputation you can leverage. Modern urban life is an anonymous place. Setting yourself apart from the crowd is difficult, but an internet presence can help if you use it correctly. Any savvy jobseeker knows that social networking profiles are often viewed by potential employers. Equally important is what a Google search can reveal. For competitive positions, it’s not enough that your online persona is clean and professional, it must “add value” to your resume. Real estate agents, other contract professionals and small businesses were likewise quick to set themselves apart from their peers through compelling online personas. Now even big companies like Comcast and Jetblue meticulously monitor Twitter for mentions of their brand.

This is all social media 101, but the effect is expanding. If you want to promote yourself as a professional for anything you have to have a blog, a Twitter account, and at least two social networking site profiles. Your online social networking is likely to be as important as networking you do in real life–and the two will almost certainly augment each other. The trend is towards less of a distinction between the personal and the professional, the online and the offline the private and the public. In fact, people are eager to publicize many aspects of their private life if it makes their online personas more relevant. Twitter streams and blogs are full of lifestyle activities and private moments of frustration.

Online identities are also becoming more mobile. The popular blog comment platform DISQUS now makes it easy to automatically add a picture and other information to your comments. I expect this trend will continue. In the near future, it will be easy to link anything you say online to everything else you have said online, and to your profiles and blogs. This interconnectivity will be desirable for reputation and persona building. Anonymous statements won’t garner much attention or respect.

If respect is the goal, then authors will keep in mind that anything they say can be quickly cross referenced and checked. Plagiarism, gross exaggeration, lies are now all easier than ever to pinpoint and expose.
Instant accountability means that now corporate blogs and personal comments are now subject to standards once reserved for journalists. Integrity is key.

I’m not suggesting that all web anonymity will disappear or that the accountability will be perfect. There will always be places to hide or forget yourself on the web. All fact checking and cross referencing is only as good as its source, as we have all learned from Wikipedia. But when it takes so much effort to build up a credible persona, people will spend more time building and less time being incredulous. The effects will even reach into the real world, as one PR account executive learned when he tweeted an insult about the home city of one of his clients.

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