The age of transparency

The web is making people and companies more transparent. Even though some users are concerned about losing the anonymity that they enjoyed so much during the past 20 years of online existence, the increased transparency of today’s digital world can help our society become better. And it forces people to tell the truth, since lying without getting revealed is increasingly difficult.

When I studied Business Communication from 2003 to 2006 the (marketing) world was still pretty much like in the old days. One of the basic rules we learned was that every product or service can be positioned on the market in the way you want, you just need to find the right way of communicating it. I don’t remember “transparency” being part of the curriculum, at least not as a major factor to consider when working with business communication. Apparently transparency was something Marketers and PR people didn’t need to care about too much, even though Google of course already existed – but Social Networks were still in their early days, the blogosphere just started to grow, and the rise of real time web was still a few years away.

But now, five years later, everything has changed. Every promise about a product or service can be verified or disproved online. A quick search gives consumers access to product reviews in online stores and on specific review sites, blog postings from people having used the product/service (via Twingly Blog Search for example), and of course shorter feedback like tweets or status updates (via Twingly Microblog Search). You could even use a search engine for sentiment analysis to get a quick input whether people on Twitter like the product/service or not.

Product characteristics are more transparent than every before and each company that sells poor quality products but tells everybody they are the best you can get will eventually be exposed and fail.

But transparency does not only change the way marketing and advertising work. Transparency also affects politics, on the one hand due to a new class of observers such as blogs that follow and analyse the actions taken by politicians, and on the other hand because of the wide access to information which enables everyone to make a quick fact check of things being said by politicians. Even whistle-blower sites like Wikileaks or video platforms like YouTube improve people’s access to information, both by revealing secret documents like Wikileaks did yesterday and by providing everybody with visual witness reports and other videos to past events that otherwise might have been forgotten.

Even those whose mission it is to create transparency around government’s and companies’ actions are now becoming more transparent: Journalists and Bloggers. Thanks to news aggregators and search engines like Google News, it takes a few seconds to compare what different newspapers and content sites have written about a specific topic. One can find out at a glance who published what, who quoted whom, and who didn’t correct a detail or accusation that already has been revealed as being incorrect.

Transparency forces each of us to question our own actions and behaviour. Politicians who made a big mistake, companies who praised products that turned out to be faulty and news outlets that created their own truth just to sell more papers or to get more page impressions. In the digital age they all have to fear being exposed. Everyone makes mistakes, and most people are willing to forgive – if there is a confession. But if the one responsible tries to cover up the problem, things can get ugly very quickly these days. Because there will be always someone who stumbles upon inconsistencies. And after that has happened, the documentation of it will be everywhere on the web – forever.

Sometimes the phrase “The Internet never forgets” is used to criticize the web’s capability of finding content published year’s or even decades ago. While people’s memories slowly fade away, the Internet can tell you those old memories in a detailed way is if was yesterday they happened. But even though this might become an issue for people who find photos from their wild teenage days online, in many other situations the Internet’s inability to forget is a strength.

Because the human brain also forgets things that it actually needs for making the right judgements, for evaluating people’s or companies’ actions and statements. A politician that is about to get an important role in the parliament or a company that receives a lot of positive attention for a successful CSR campaign might have a dark, flawed past. A past that both individuals and mainstream media are often good at forgetting. But Google, Wikipedia, YouTube, blogs and other sites don’t forget.

There is a flip-side to transparency, yes. But while our attitude towards questionable photos from teenage days has to change anyway, the pros of transparency might have a much bigger impact on our society than people realize. The web does not only increase the transparency of companies and public individuals with power, but it helps us to remember this kind of information that we should not but very likely would forget. And this is something that could help our society to grow and to get better.

What do you think: Is the age of transparency something rather positive or negative?

/Martin Weigert

Photo: stock.xchng