Sunday, 5 August 2012

Who Are You Online? Five Points To Ponder

I've come across some interesting stories about impersonation, trolling, and downright silliness that's really making me think not just about the way we come across, but how we build identity and how important it is to be aware of the way we're perceived online.
In my last post I wrote about the stupid things people do because the way they perceive themselves differs greatly from the way their actions are received online. Today I want to talk about trolling, impersonation, and what happens when your online image is threatened or compromised. Effective online identity management requires five strategies:

  1. An understanding of your audience

  2. Engagement

  3. A tight grip on your brand

  4. Effective crisis management

  5. Understanding the internet

1. Understanding your audience

One man who really understands his audience is 81-year-old William Shatner. His photon torpedo (sorry!) was exposed when he was roughly patted down by the TSA at LA International airport earlier this week, but it's the way he dealt with it that's got all the attention.

Let's take it from the top. He's a Hollywood star, and has been since the heady days of Star Trek back in the Sixties. He's a cult hero, still in demand despite his advancing years. He was manhandled so roughly in the airport that his loose-fitting trousers dropped down and since he wasn't wearing any underwear, all was revealed to the public. It's humiliating for anyone, but this guy is a revered VIP and accustomed to being fawned on.

So what does he do when he's suffered this indignity? Laugh about it on talk shows! This is why we love the man; he doesn't take himself too seriously. He knows this and plays to it on every occasion that presents itself. We know this, and we still love him. I love him.

Shatner knows his audience and he knows what his appeal is; his geniality and good humour have won him many fans so to act up and scream for a lawyer, which he's well entitled to do, would be considered out of character. By remaining in character he's inspired more love and I'm sure he's got more people than ever before asking who Captain Kirk is. It was the best possible response.

2. Engagement

Only celebrities get away with endlessly chattering about themselves or making one post and waiting for the replies that inevitably come, not to mention the shares. The basic idea, when you don't engage, is to be entertaining or appeal to a common denominator. This gets you more quantity than quality fans. To build quality fans that help to spread your reputation as intended, you have to engage. One person who does this really well is social media coach Kim Beasley. She's got profiles on the social media including Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus and she's always got something interesting to share. The best thing about her, though, is that she engages. Make a friendly comment on a post of hers, or tag her in a conversation, and she'll hop right in and say hello. She comments on my posts from time to time and we're quite friendly with each other. Take a look at her posts. They're about other people and what they're doing, though she mentions herself from time to time. I love Kim's posts because they're interesting and occasionally useful if they're about technology or developments in social media.


Now look at a celebrity's posts. How about Wolverine actor Hugh Jackman? I uncircled him after a while because... just look at his posts. "Me, me, me..." Does he have any interests in anything apart from himself? Contrast that with George Takei. He's funny, warm, and interacts with his fans.

One important thing to note with both of those is that they are the keys to building a fan base in the first place. Self-obsessed celebrities get away with preening because they're pretty, or we're too obsessed to care much what they post as long as they post something. When something goes wrong, though, they're unprepared because fans can be fickle if all they know about you is your love affair with favourable media reports.

3. A tight grip on your brand

The key to maintaining a tight grip on your brand is to own the narrative of all events pertaining to yourself. I wrote last night about former Vante CFO Adam Smith and his misguided (and videoed) effort at activism. He has since posted an apology video and stirred up a storm of controversy. Needless to say, trying to explain himself has just made it worse. It always does. Who owns the narrative of his actions now? The media, who are pulling in different directions.

The best thing he can do is lie low till it blows over, then talk about other things on YouTube or his blog. Or stay off the internet. Some people are their own worst enemy and a lack of sensitivity can make or break you online, as former politician Edwina Currie discovered. If you're more interested in promoting yourself than the issue you're purportedly dealing with, you're going to hurt yourself and those around you when the inevitable firestorm ignites.

Anonymous and the Early Flicker trademark spat

The trouble with Anonymous is that it's a loosely organized collective. There is no central leadership, it's more of an idea than anything else and to join them you have only to avoid using your real identity online. That's it. I presume this is why French company Early Flicker is attempting to trademark both the logo and the accompanying slogan: “Anonymous. We are legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us.” To add insult to injury, they began to offer Anonymous-inspired t-shirts for sale on the website.

Anonymous were not amused, and the website owner has since caved in, leaving this whiny post where the t-shirts were advertised. The ethics of the enterprise are debatable; on the social media people questioned whether Anonymous should be accorded intellectual property rights given their violations of the law, but let's be honest, messing with them is a bad idea. Besides, they're better at taking out the garbage than other organizations; when someone trying to impress them destroyed a children's charity site, Anonymous unmasked and reported the perpetrator. The winners are clearly Anonymous, whose ownership of their narrative is managed by keeping the flow of positive publicity flowing. Whatever you may think of them, sometimes they do good work.

Other Impostors

The US State Department's trolling initiative is actually a brilliant idea. By disrupting extremist forums, they can prevent terrorists from organizing. Well, that's the plan.

The program, called Viral Peace, seeks to occupy the virtual space that extremists fill, one thread or Twitter exchange at a time. Shahed Amanullah, a senior technology adviser to the State Department and Viral Peace’s creator, tells Danger Room he wants to use “logic, humor, satire, [and] religious arguments, not just to confront [extremists], but to undermine and demoralize them.” Think of it as strategic trolling, in pursuit of geopolitical pwnage.

The question is, will the users get wise to it and find other avenues? I'll be keeping an eye out for updates. Al Qaeda has been working on rebranding so having trolls disrupt them when they're reeling from bad publicity and drone attacks on their leaders might cause them to break up in the end. The State Department's use of non-violent means to deal with terrorism is to be applauded, though. It's innovative, if nothing else.

4. Effective Crisis Management

At the moment, Shell is ignoring the Greenpeace/Yes Men stunt in which they hijacked Shell's brand and set up a website and social media accounts that purported to belong to Shell. This is Forbes's take on the Greenpeace/Yes Men Shell hoax:

Greenpeace and Yes Lab created a parody “Arctic Ready” website that closely mirrored Shell’s own site talking about drilling in the Arctic. They then created a “ShellisPrepared” Twitter account, purporting to be Shell’s bumbling social media team trying to contain the negative ads being generated by a social media tool on the site. Many of the people who saw the website and Twitter account assumed they were actually created by Shell, and broadcast them on social media as examples of corporate social media gone horribly wrong. Instead they were an example of activist social media sabotage gone viral.

Many of the people who went on the site had a whale of a time (sorry!), convinced they were trolling Shell. The way Shell responded to this is interesting: they kept quiet and waited for it to blow over. Greenpeace got the publicity they wanted, but their ethically questionable approach may have lost them some allies. Meanwhile, it seems that Shell's dignified silence has served them well.

5. Understanding the internet

The internet is a world unto itself with its own internal rules. News can travel at lightning speed and the more likely a picture or comments can get you into trouble, the further and faster they'll spread. Forget this at your peril. Everything that happens here is concentrated and more intense than in the real world so if something goes viral and it's fun and entertaining, you're a hit and this is good. If it's embarrassing, the good news is, if you shut up and keep your head down, it'll all blow over soon enough.

People forget you're a real person and the physical distance makes them forget that words can cut like a knife. Mind you, those people who are aware of how hurtful their behaviour is often do it deliberately because they understand how much it hurts.

The best way to work the internet — on your website, blog, forum, or social media sites, is to be interesting and friendly. If you don't create content, share others' in a way that benefits them. They'll thank you for it. Or you can create or faciliate communities of like-minded people. My interest in politics and a range of subjects from the environment to human rights to lolcats has earned me a lot of respect, and ultimately, that's what I'm known for on Google Plus.

How I do it

So far I've managed to maintain a reputation for being open, honest, inquisitive, reasonable, and friendly. This is the way most people want to be perceived, so to build that, do all the things that other people who are perceived to have those qualities do. Associate with people who have those qualities, and be careful how you discuss hot button issues. You can take risks, but be aware of the possible consequences; if you've got a mostly conservative audience an off-colour joke could make them think badly of you. Most of all, once you've built up this online persona, stay in character.

When I've goofed up or got a bit too snarky (it does happen), I've been honest about being out of line or overly opinionated. Which I am, from time to time, let's be honest about this. On hot button issues the important thing is to let the other side have their say and try to reach an agreement. The my-way-or-the-highway attitude is where a lot of people fall down, and Dale Carnegie is dead right when he says we ought to leave a bit of wiggle room for the idea that we might be wrong. The point is, digging your heels in or trying to explain why you're such a great person, really in the midst of a smackdown is the wrong approach. Humble out and people will give you the space to back away gracefully.

When trolled or when someone tries to make trouble for me (mercifully it's never been too bad or caused problems for my business), I cut them off and walk away. The trick is not to take the bait or get involved with someone who is trying to co-opt you. Being open enough to give people a chance means that I've got a lot of support if something goes wrong for me. The activism helps, and I'm not afraid to be associated with it. For this reason, I'm fairly certain that if someone did have a serious go at me, they'd get a right hammering for it. That's a good thing.

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