Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Myth of Transparency - Why We Don't Really Have a Say

Every few months, it makes the news again - another change in Privacy rules on Facebook , a new agreement at Twitter, Google pulls its access from another platform, a shakeup in management, key employees leaving.... Each time this happens it causes an outbreak of prodding, poking and, in many cases, intrusive questions to dig out the "why" of what happened and all the dirty laundry.

Gossip-mongers, paparazzi, we have words for people like this in the entertainment industry and in everyday life. And yet, in an online communities there seems to be a presumption by the community that they have a right to know why decisions are made and who profits from them.

Clearly this is not the case. All of the leading networking platforms are privately-owned firms and while some of them are publicly traded, none are owned by the users. The privately owned networks have limited legal need to report even so much as executive leadership changes. Publicly traded companies must report changes...but they still have no requirements around explaining the whys and wherefores. Nor is there any moral obligation to explain personal choices by the staff about their own lives.

So why do we demand explanations?  Let me illustrate with a parable, as I so often do.

I am active in an incredibly niche industry. To say that everyone knows everyone else comes very close to the truth. A few years ago a major player in the industry landscape, having pulled itself out of two major business setbacks, packed it in quite suddenly, just as it was doing really well again.

People went ballistic. They raged and ranted about this company, how it had never been well-run, or
that it was a joke. Specifically, the President came under major dissection. He's been higgeldy-piggedly about his business objectives, running the company like a hobby, inconsistent, etc. (In reality, the market had radically altered several times over a decade, and he had merely been attempting to find workable business models, but that was never once acknowledged.)

Recently, that company has made some moves to return as a player in the field. There were positive
and negative reactions, but the weirdest and most inexplicable reaction I encountered was from members of that industry press. Two journalists told me that they were going to contact the people involved and demand details of their contracts. I boggled. Then I asked, "By what right do you demand this knowledge? It's none of your business."

The argument was loud.

A week later one of them contacted me privately to admit that I saved him from embarrassing himself
badly and ruining his credibility.

We use the products. We engage with the communities. Of course we feel as if we have a claim on those companies, but in reality, we have none. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn owe us...nothing. We use their sites for free and in return they sell our data to advertisers. Equally we owe these platforms nothing; no loyalty, no praise. By what right do we demand transparency from these platforms? Because we answer questions and talk with other people?

The Myth is that by participating on a community, we have some kind of ownership of that community. In reality, we have only our own content to leverage. Anything that we have created to make the community a better place is ours, and with some foresight, we'll have made it as portable and flexible as possible. If that content is customized for that site, well then, it's gone.

Change in any community comes with emotional cost, and each time it feels like upheaval but, we are owed no transparency from any platform on which we willingly engage that we do not own. Perhaps some platforms will be more transparent than others, but we have no right to demand answers to questions that are none of our business.

So go ahead and ask your questions, but don't be surprised when no one tells you "why".

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