Whole Food for Thought

The development of Web 2.0 tools has allowed for anyone to walk onto the scene and join the online conversation. Social networking sites let users communicate and stay connected with friends and colleagues. Some of the most popular blogs, like Daily Kos, serve as a meeting ground for all sorts of liked-minded users. But what do you when the conversation turns to your company, your product, or even yourself?

Recently, too many business leaders have answered this question by employing a variety of less-than-ethical tactics. From shadowy anonymous user names to sneaking in questionable edits on Wikipedia, those who defend one's self behind the curtain of anonymity need a digital reality check.

The New York Times has followed this phenomena closely in recent months, starting with the now infamous case of sock puppeteering from John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods on a Yahoo! Finance discussion board. Using the name “Rahodeb“, Mackey weighed in on everything from his company stock's price to his own hair cut ““ all under the guise of an anonymous Yahoo! user.

Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia anyone can edit, isn't safe from these nefarious campaigns either. Employees at companies from Wal-Mart to Pepsi to the CIA have been exposed as editors to their own employers' Wiki page ““ often with biased edits, as in the Exxon employ who was found “playing down [Exxon's] impact on the area's wildlife and casting a positive light on compensation payments the company had made to victims of the [Valdez Oil] spill,“ the New York Times reported.

How are these supposedly anonymous posters getting caught? Well for one, the online conversations are more organized than they may appear at first glance. Frequent visitors of user groups, Yahoo! Finance for example, are likely to spot others who post with regularity. It doesn't take long to spot the user group denizens, many of whom use their real names or at least include an email address. A frequent anonymous poster, with often biased comments, sets off red flags among the other users. Do this at your own peril.

Also, you can't outwit technology. Websites are popping up almost daily dedicated to outing anonymity on the Internet. A computer science graduate student recently created a site that can track the edits to Wikipedia pages down to your specific IP address. Visit the site to see a collection of “salacious edits” ranging an ACLU employee editing the entry on the Pope to a church in Tulsa altering the entry covering the origin of the species.

Don't let this warning scare you though. There are a number of excellent corporate bloggers posting under their real names that have developed quite a following. Sun Micro System's Jonathan Swartz and GM's Vice chairman Bob Luntz are two great C-levels blogs that come to mind.

As I'm sure the Whole Foods CEO would now agree: while it may require more forethought, it's best to post transparently and collaboratively online.

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