Anonymity in the workplace: it is appropriate, sometimes
By Sam Driver.
As work evolves, personal reputation will begin to trump employer reputation. The success of websites like Facebook, LinkedIn and other social networking tools is contributing to a personal brand identity that encompasses both physical and online / in-world (to use a virtual worlds term) behavior. Networks of trusted sources are already crossing national borders, corporate firewalls and any other imaginable barrier. Our identity is an amalgamation of our behaviors, habits and history, both in the physical and virtual worlds.
If reputation and trust are invaluable, then where does anonymity fit into this world order? On any other day, I’d answer with a pretty hard line that anonymity has a tiny, very specialized place – for whistle blowing and counseling. I am a fierce advocate for a single identity at work, both physically and in-world. However, I found myself rethinking my position in a recent brainstorming session I did with the ThinkBalm Innovation Community.
I was surprised to learn that participants felt that anonymity in some cases might actually be helpful. Even in this meeting of ThinkBalm Innovation Community members who are growing to trust each other based on our shared exploration and advocacy of the Immersive Internet, some people felt that if they were to give certain kinds of feedback, sometimes it might be better (safer? easier?) if the feedback weren’t tied to them.
The subject at hand was a 3D “sentiment-o-meter” — a feedback system for people to offer their feelings about or reactions to topics raised during a discussion without having to break into the voice or text chat channel. We were discussing a virtual mood meter that meeting participants could use to communicate subtle non-verbal cues to the group. Originally, we discussed the possibility of creating a tool that would allow people to change their avatar’s color, or the color of their avatar’s clothing, based on how they felt about a topic.
Very quickly, the discussion turned to an alternative system that was anonymous — something akin to a 3D version of the real-time voter feedback system CNN used to gain insight into how undecided Ohio voters were responding to the recent U.S. presidential debates. (Click the screen shot below to watch the video on CNN’s Web site.) This idea gained a lot of traction.
Is there a real difference between the two systems? Most people felt that there was. In fact, the two systems could be used together. On the one hand, an introverted participant could offer feedback without standing out from the crowd. On the other hand, someone could use a tool to register and claim an opinion without breaking into the voice channel. The active speaker could direct the conversation more naturally to address this kind of subtle feedback.
An anonymous system really only works when you have built up a trusted relationship. If you do, then anonymous feedback systems could form an important aspect of the virtual “body language” system. If you don’t, you may end up with “griefing” — people participating just to harass others, without regard for consequences.
We’ve accepted that we must give up our privacy to do business (e.g., shop, bank) on the web. Likewise, we’ll have to give up privacy when working via the Immersive Internet. But privacy and security aren’t the only factors that will drive how and when people will communicate in immersive environments. A real-time feedback tool that offers both anonymous and identity-associated feedback really extends the debate about anonymity to a much larger and more pervasive context: developing a virtual equivalent to physical-world body language, facial expressions, and voting processes.
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