Rules for the Road in Social Space

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incoldblog2.jpgADOTAS EXCLUSIVE — Whole Food’s CEO John Mackey has returned to blogging after a long hiatus following the exposure of his anonymous posting about a rival company that Whole Foods later acquired. Over a period of years, Mackey posted on Yahoo finance boards under a pseudonym, at times discrediting the competitor, other times singing Whole Foods’ praises. Recently cleared by the SEC of any wrongdoing, the episode nevertheless raises some interesting ethical questions for businesses that operate, in whatever capacity, in the social space.

Mackey’s biggest mistake is that he posted under a pseudonym. Even if you’re not setting out to bash an opponent, why would you post anonymously? If you and your company stand behind what you have to say, doesn’t it make more sense to engage your audience in honest and transparent debate? Back your opinions up, convert those who disagree to your way of thinking through the power and strength of your arguments, or agree to disagree. Posting anonymously in this context runs the risk of making you look like you have something to hide.

Mackey disagrees on the issue of transparency: “I do not think that the virtue of transparency is particularly applicable or relevant when it comes to online communities whose custom is to participate through screen names. Within this context, I believed being consistent with the custom was more important than promoting the virtue of transparency as long as my information was accurate and my arguments well-reasoned.”

His argument in essence is that people post online using made up screen names therefore you don’t need to disclose who you are when you post. While he may be right by the letter of the (unwritten, online) law, it’s somewhat silly of him to apply general online community guidelines (i.e. that as a Manchester United fan I’m free to post on a United board as KaiMacRed instead of Kai MacMahon) to a CEO posting about his industry, or even worse his company and competitor. My posts about my soccer team have no bearing on or relation to my job.

If you have a powerful argument, if your company or product really is strong, if your customers really do prefer you… what do you have to be afraid of? If you have issues in any of those areas, instead of bashing, why not focus on those issues, engaging your customers to help you improve. They, after all, know your business best of all. Take advantage of the opportunities for honest and forthright dialogue with them to learn how to improve matters.

One of the most striking things about this whole affair is that Mackey is somewhat of a pioneer. He started posting on the Yahoo boards nine years ago in 1999, surely making him one of the first CEOs outside the valley to post online regularly. That’s pretty cool, and could have brought Whole Foods untold good publicity: ground breaking store breaks yet more ground. Unfortunately he chose to hide behind a pseudonym. An opportunity missed.

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