Change Agent - Issue 51

Big companies and the Web are draining the civility out of business. Are you ready to embrace accountability and sacrifice anonymity?

I was almost killed on my way to work today. People who know me realize that my brushes with death are fairly common, but this one was instructive. As I was driving down the road, a Verizon repair truck burst out of a driveway, narrowly missed my bumper, and tore across two lanes of traffic. The driver sped off, but not too fast for me to get her license-plate number.

Cell phone in hand, I was ready to call her supervisor. This wasn't just a matter of annoying suburban commuters -- it was truly reckless driving. Alas, I couldn't call: There was no "Don't like my driving?" bumper sticker. No phone number to call.

Determined to follow through (Think of the innocent schoolchildren!), I called information, tracked down the number for the corporate offices of Verizon, and was connected with an anonymous operator who couldn't have cared less about the anonymous truck driver. I hit a dead end, and the driver-perp went on her merry way.

My conclusion: Big companies and the Internet are sucking the civility out of society.

Have you ever noticed that people you know are far less likely to cut you off in traffic, curse at you, or steal your parking space than total strangers seem to be? There's a reason: Anonymity is the enemy of civility.

In a town of 200 people, you can't get away with bad behavior. Sooner or later, even bullies need the help of those around them -- and even bullies know that their bad behavior will keep them from getting help.

Given total privacy and a cloak of invisibility, many people become coarse. They do selfish things -- things that they would never do if a friend (or a video camera) were watching. Pornographic online chat rooms would be empty if users had to type in their real names to register. Polluting the Hudson River would be a lot harder to do if you had to meet with neighbors and explain that it was your decision.

Here's the problem: Orwell-obsessed critics complain that we're entering the era of Big Brother, where there are no secrets, where marketers know everything there is to know about us. I say that we're entering an era of anonymity.

Big companies are one culprit. A big company can do things that a neighbor would never dream of doing -- because big companies can hide behind voice mail and "policy." When we get truly angry at a company for bad service (think about United canceling its flights last year) or for repeated promise breaking (think about getting your DSL installed), it's largely because anonymous strangers have made our lives miserable, without our getting the satisfaction of looking them in the eye.

A year ago, I did a friend a favor and agreed to interview a candidate for a job opening that he had. The person he sent me came from a big telephone company. I glanced at her résumé and said, "Wow, you must know the person responsible for the DSL debacle. I can't believe what a horrible job your old company did with my line -- and the line of every person I know." Her face turned bright red, and she admitted that, in fact, she had been the person responsible.

What a moment. She had a rare chance to meet someone from whom her company had stolen hours of time. And I had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see an actual face behind big-company greed. (By the way, she didn't get the job.)

The other force working against personal responsibility is the Internet. I don't know who was responsible for making the Internet an anonymous place, but it was a truly dumb idea. Who benefits from the dark alleys and the lack of accountability that comes from online anonymity? Let's take a look:

  • Online auction services such as eBay work poorly in an anonymous environment, and, as we've seen, despite their best efforts, anonymity can lead to theft and fraudulent bidding.
  • Email is falling apart, largely as a result of spam. The torrent of anonymous messages that clog our inboxes would disappear in a day if all email messages could be traced to the individuals who had sent them -- with a bill then sent to those people for the costs incurred.
  • Information exchange is becoming crippled as a result of anonymous rumors. Everything from online stock tips to news becomes specious when we're unable to figure out who said what.
  • News groups are being rendered useless because individuals are able to show up, yell, scream, and otherwise disrupt a useful conversation -- and there's not a thing we can do about it, because we don't know who anyone is and can't lock people out if they change their user name and then come back.

Stop for a minute, and consider how well the real-world analogs for these services work, and how much better they'd work in an online environment with no anonymity.

Could you imagine a workplace where everyone came in wearing a mask? People would sit wherever they wanted to, take anything that interested them, say whatever they felt like saying -- and then they'd disappear, possibly forever. Nothing would get done.

Here's a humble suggestion: Let's build a parallel Internet, a Net where no one is welcome unless they have a verifiable identity. Let's require everyone to take responsibility for their actions if they want to participate in our new online society.

Will privacy go out the window in a world with no anonymity?

Well, in the old days we had far less anonymity and far more privacy. As the Internet and the shields of large corporations have increased anonymity, it doesn't seem as if privacy is increasing. And by the way, is privacy necessarily such a good thing?

I recently did some work with a moderately well-known author. He explained to me the steps that he takes to avoid being contacted. He has no email address, he said. If you want to contact him, you need to send a note to a friend of his, who screens his messages. He has no business card, no mailing address, and no phone in his office. He has never bought anything online, and when he flies, he buys his tickets with cash. After considering that this was sort of bizarre behavior (he's a little bit of a bizarre personality to begin with), I felt sad for him. In order to save himself 20 or 30 minutes a day screening email messages from folks he doesn't know, he's decided to remove himself from the world. As a result, as an anonymous, private person, he's under a lot less pressure to be civil and to be a productive member of our society.

What if there were no privacy? What if everyone knew how much money you made, what you paid in taxes, what you gave to charity, and how many dogs you had? And let's add just two more assumptions to the mix:

One, the government doesn't get overthrown and replaced with blue-helmeted thought-controlling soldiers enforcing a new world order. And two, we're all equally exposed. You have no anonymity and no privacy -- but no one else gets any either.

What would happen? I'm not proposing that I want a world like that -- but I do think that the idea is worth discussing. Somewhere along the way, we seem to have come to the conclusion that rampant chaos, aided and abetted by tiny circles of privacy, is the best way to ensure our future as a civil society. I think that if I had my choice, I'd vote for the village where everyone knew my name.

At least we'd all drive better.

Seth Godin (sgodin@fastcompany.com) is the author of Permission Marketing: Turning Strangers Into Friends, and Friends Into Customers (Simon & Schuster, 1999) and Unleashing the Ideavirus (Do You Zoom Inc., 2000). Get his latest book for free on the Web (www.ideavirus.com).

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