Authenticity and the end of online anonymity

Just over a year ago I wrote a piece in the London Evening Standard that asked if it would soon be all-but impossible to be anything other than your true self online.

Those days, it seems, are fast approaching.  “Upending Anonymity, These Days the Web Unmasks Everyone,” announces a headline in today’s New York Times. Author Brian Stelter picks out several recent examples of people caught doing something unusual, illegal or embarrassing in public and then being swiftly identified through their online activities and social connections.

Another news item from today — detailing the arrest of an alleged member of the LulzSec hacker collective — suggests that even those who know their way around web anonymity are finding it hard to stay hidden.

Since I wrote the Standard piece, the financial information-sharing website that I featured, called Blippy, has gone under. At the time it looked likely to fail because relatively few people had taken their online self-revelations to the extreme that Blippy required to succeed. I was nevertheless interested in how the tell-all culture upon which Blippy was predicated was growing in strength, a development that I predicted would eventually spark suspicion of those who refused to share.

What I didn’t address was the idea that it’s also becoming ever-easier for one’s behavior, both online and off-, to be revealed even when you had an expectation of anonymity. But if we’ve reached that point too, as the Times article suggests we might have, then the same consequences hold: that we’ll likely feel ever greater pressure to be authentically ourselves whether we’re online or off, and that that pressure might in turn have us modifying our behavior in both spheres.

As I said in the article, “Maybe, as a result, we’ll all be inspired to lead more responsible lives in the future, figuring that since so much about our modern lives is searchable, we might as well just be good instead of worrying about looking good.”

The same caveats also hold, however. To live both publicly and safely requires a system that’s law-abiding, tolerant, open and totally accepting of its critics and malcontents. Unfortunately, that’s not something that our shifting ideas of authenticity and anonymity are likely to make it any easier for us to secure.



Leave a comment

Filed under Analysis, commentary, journalism, social networks

A new feature for Stanford magazine

I really like writing for Stanford’s alumni magazine. It always looks great, it’s run by people who know their stuff and, best of all, it takes as its subject the achievements, interests and opinions of people associated with the university. The caliber and size of the institution pretty much guarantee that any story that the bi-monthy commissions will be a pleasure to research and write.

Here’s my most recent article for them. This was an interesting one.  It started out as a straight forward narrative, but then developed into more of a picture story.

Leave a comment

Filed under journalism

It’s official — there’s no better place to live in America than Silicon Valley

According to this year’s Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index for the United States, Silicon Valley boasts the best quality of life in the entire country. The New York Times published a handy interactive map of the Index this weekend.

While the Times chose to review the results by state – where Hawaii comes out top – the results were actually compiled by congressional district. Of those, California’s district 14, which pretty much contains the entire Valley, was the highest ranked.

The Index was derived by aggregating measures of reported happiness, education, health insurance, job satisfaction, community safety and other factors that together make somewhere a good place to live.

To some of us who inhabit the Valley, our preeminence was a surprise. There’s really nowhere else better? In the entire nation? After all, the area is stupendously expensive. Try buying a house here. Or a tank of gas. And this is a place where everyone works insanely hard. They’re super-competitive. Commutes can be crazy. There’s very little job security.

But many of these negatives  reflect something that’s arguably also very positive about the place: that a lot of people here are very good at what they do. That means they get paid well, and wealth correlates very neatly with contributory factors to well-being such as access to housing, health care, good food, and clean air.

To be good at what you do also takes caring about your work. That can produce stress by the bucketful, but in the right environment it  promotes job satisfaction, too, and the flip side of the Valley’s poor job security is that its inhabitants feel free to leave any job, anytime, whenever they’re presented with a better opportunity.

Most crucially, then, the place offers – even in a recession – money and possibility, and maybe that’s what really puts us at the top.

The Valley remains full of people with new ideas, launching new ventures, making all kinds of deals every day with — and here’s the kicker — a small but genuine chance of actually succeeding. Plenty fail, for sure, but even that is understood as a learning experience here and not a judgement on your character for life. And that freeing, energizing potentiality rubs off even on those who simply service the more entrepreneurial among us.

Paul Graham, the founder of the startup incubator Y-Combinator, wrote an essay a few years ago entitled ‘How to Be Silicon Valley,’ that imagined what it would take to reproduce the Valley somewhere else. You’d need only three things, he argued: rich people, nerds, and a place they both want to live. Such a place would likely have a university, he suggests (nerds like to live among smart people), and also be “the kind of town where people walk around smiling.”

It’s a cute line but perceptive, too.

A smiling citizenry is either complacent or still hopeful about its future. We have plenty of wealthy people here who can afford complacence, but what’s remarkable is how many of them remain engaged as financial supporters of young people looking to make it themselves.

The rest of us, meanwhile, may not be rich enough to feel self-satisfied, but the sense of sheer possibility that permeates the culture in which we’ve chosen to live – for all that it makes the region a popular and thus breathtakingly expensive place to inhabit – is a great generator of grounded, realistic hopefulness. And isn’t that, in many ways, the ultimate marker of personal well-being?


Filed under commentary, Silicon Valley

Metaphorical earthquakes

were my subject this week in an analysis piece for the London Evening Standard. I was trying to make sense of a week of big management changes in three Silicon Valley giants that are all doing pretty well in basic financial terms. So why the need for a shake up?

Leave a comment

Filed under Analysis, technology

The business lessons of political social media blunders

The last week was one in which politicians in general, and Sarah Palin in particular, showed that they are still getting to grips with the impact of social media on how, when and where they should try and connect with voters.

Over the last couple of years, American businesses have been facing the same issues, I reported today in the London Evening Standard.

Leave a comment

Filed under Analysis, social networks

Can London recreate Silicon Valley — and should it even try?

That’s what I ask in today’s London Evening Standard.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Vanity searching in vain

Tom Foremski has an interesting post this week about the apparent shrinking scale of Google’s search results.

It turns out that searches on his own name are yielding fewer and fewer results over time.  That understandably surprised Foremski since he’s both prolific and widely referenced.

Foremski is mostly concerned with the fact that this is happening.  “Clearly,” he concludes, “the number of results that Google claims is bogus.”

“What’s going on?” he then asks, and his commenters suggest a number of likely explanations in response.

But whatever the reason, Foremski’s observation makes clear that Google search statistics have dubious validity as measures of scale. And yet journalists, myself included, use them all the time as a shorthand way of measuring impact.

Our model is citations. These certainly have validity when measured against complete and comprehensively indexed sets of data. An example would be a full archive of a particular newspaper’s articles.  You can clearly state that a particular word was used, say, in the New York Times x times in 2005 and y times in 2010.

Citations are also important in science where they help measure impact of a researcher’s work. It genuinely means something to say someone is the most cited psychologist, for example, in the world.

Google, I’m sure, doesn’t mind us thinking that it, too, offers a pretty-much complete and comprehensive data set along with a true count of the number of citations in that data set.

But both the comprehensiveness of the set and the reliability of the count seem to be in fairly constant flux.

There’s solace here for Foremski — his vanity search results may not truly measure his reach (and, along with it, his impact) online.

For the rest of us there’s a lesson, too: that we need to swallow the citation counts we find on Google with a healthy dose of salt.  And I guess we need to be looking for new kind of vanity index to use from now on.


Filed under Analysis, journalism, technology

Tech trends in advertising

is something I just took a look at.  Recent developments in web, print and mobile computing, I suggest, are making highly-personalized advertising much more possible.

What I didn’t get into was whether this is a good thing.  It seems to me that you can argue it either way.  But I have a feeling that opt-in will be the way to go in this new advertising landscape.  It could be active opting-in, like MePlease is offering in the UK.  Or it could simply be about providing really satisfying ads that are both personally relevant and entertaining enough that people will be willing to stick with them for 5, 10 or 30 seconds.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

An exemplary lede

A couple of months ago I wrote about an exemplary pull quote over at ValleyDad.

Now here’s an exemplary lede:

“Gardens are as difficult to time as markets. Last year everything was ahead of itself and gardeners were worrying there would be nothing left in flower by June. This year everything in Britain is wonderfully late . . .”

It’s exemplary because it’s Robin Lane Fox in the Financial Times. He has the back page of the weekend FT House and Home section to write about gardens and gardening. Given his readership, you simply couldn’t do better.

Leave a comment

Filed under journalism

A reminder that it helps to pitch the right outlet

Watching Avatar while sitting next to a Stanford professor had me (and the professor) wondering about the ‘Stanford’ t-shirt that Sigourney Weaver’s avatar wears very prominently in a number of scenes.

What was the story was behind the shirt’s appearance in the movie?  Why choose that university?  What was that choice meant to signify to the viewer?  And who, I next wondered, might be interested in running a short article featuring the answers?  The obvious candidate was the Stanford alumni magazine — one of the best of its kind — for which I’ve written before.

So the next day I pitched my editorial contact at the magazine and on Friday (just a couple of weeks later) the article was posted online.

The experience is a good reminder that a feature idea can have a lot of potential homes and be of potential interest to a lot of different people.  But when it comes to getting someone to actually commission your idea, you’re best off pitching the outlet most directly aimed at readers with the maximum potential interest in the subject you are hoping to explore.

Leave a comment

Filed under culture, journalism