By Ryan Holmes, HootSuite CEO
Think back to your first computer. Was it a PC or a Mac? (Maybe it was a classic 8-bit Commodore 64, even an old Altair 8800, which you had to assemble at home.)
Mine was an an Apple IIc that I won in 5th grade through a district-wide school programming contest. At $3000, it was a mind-blowing possession for a 10 year old.
Early tech geeks like me might remember a time when everyone hid behind handles, or made-up user names. Anytime we chatted or shared tips on forums, we all used these to conceal our true identities. My handle was ‘Invoker’ on paintball forums and programming chat groups. (Yes, paintball.) For years and years, I was free from prying governments and identity thieves. The real Ryan Holmes was nowhere to be found on the Net.
Even when the consumer Internet emerged a decade later, anonymity and handles were still the standard.
How many usernames have you used for your various online accounts over the years?
But is all this paranoia and precaution still necessary? Has social media changed the way we think about anonymity?
How Social Media Killed Big Brother
The first place where I freely volunteered personal info to the public was LinkedIn, which launched in 2003. Here was a serious tool to connect you with colleagues and employers. Your name was your business card and nobody was going to call themselves Invoker on LinkedIn and expect to be taken seriously. So, for the first time, Ryan Holmes—the real person—took the plunge on the Internet. Looking back, those early LinkedIn days were a turning point.
The Internet was no longer an anonymous playground without consequences and social rules. This was big. And all of this was helped along, of course, by enormous improvements in security and encryption.
Credit Facebook with taking this concept a huge step farther. A few years back, Facebook boldly pioneered its real name policy and pseudonyms and the like were explicitly barred.
Social media has helped make online transparency mainstream, and all the benefits that go along with it, like increased accountability and civility. Think about all of those online comment forums, cesspools where the lowest common denominator hide behind handles, thriving on spewing out insults and engaging in meaningless disputes. Anonymity, unfortunately, can often be an excuse to bring out the worst in yourself and others.
Real names on online social networks foster stronger professional and personal communities that transcend computer screens. Volunteering real first and last names has actually made everyone feel safer—not less safe. You know exactly who you’re connecting with—not some sketchy virtual proxy—and can establish real, personal connections. Relationships made online now have real world implications.
Big Brother hasn’t swooped down to censor our thoughts. Quite the opposite—debate and dissent have flourished as the electronic curtain has been lifted.
A Word of Caution
Of course, a different set of concerns has surfaced about how much information we’re now volunteering on social networks and the long-term impact on privacy.
Online transparency is a double-edged sword that needs to be handled carefully. On the one hand, more information equals more useful services and more efficient transactions. The more completely you fill out your LinkedIn profile, for instance, the better you’re able to connect with colleagues and employers. The more you contribute and volunteer on Twitter, the richer your connections with your followers. On the other hand, it’s critical that we understand exactly what we’re revealing and who will be able to see it. Plain-language disclosures, as well as user education about privacy concerns, are both vital pieces of the equation.
This post was originally published on the LinkedIn Influencer blog, a new resource that brings together regular insights from hundreds of thought-leaders around the globe. To find out how you can follow world leaders, educators, industry experts and others (including HootSuite CEO Ryan Holmes), read this post: “How to Follow Richard Branson, Barack Obama and…Ryan Holmes on LinkedIn“