University Web Developers

University Web Developers

As I mentioned in my previous post (comments still welcome), I'm doing a small class project on the ethical issues of managing on online reputation.

After the "facebookgate," #2013 controversy, I heard a lot of people expressing anger that College Prowler had misrepresented themselves when they created Facebook groups for the incoming class of 2013 for various universities.

So here is my question. Is it ever okay for a university to make social network posts or blog comments regarding your institution under false names? Or anonymously? To make posts with your real name, but not disclose that you are an employee of the university?

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Is it ever okay for a university to use false names, or post anonymously?

I'm a hard "no" on this. It goes back to what your mother told you: Don't lie.

Beyond that, it's just not good for the conversation. When people know who's speaking -- whether in an official role or merely as someone who is affiliated with a certain place speaking for him/herself -- it helps to evaluate the comment.

But, more practically, big lies eventually get revealed. If you post once or twice anonymously to a meaningless or light-hearted thread, chances are that you'll skate unnoticed. But if you post anonymously and provocatively to a conversation -- and why else would you hide behind a sock-puppet unless you were trying to join a potentially controversial thread or do something you might not be proud of if it became public (Hello 2013!) -- someone somewhere will make the effort to ferret you out. And when that happens, both you and your institution will be, at a minimum, red-faced.

The second question -- is it okay to post under a real name without making your association explicit? -- is trickier. I'll admit that I do this fairly regularly, but only because my identity is fairly well-documented online, and because I post only under my real name, wherever I post.

But I always feel that it's better to over-disclose. Unless you've got something to hide, that's the path to better understanding.

One final note: If you're not allowed to post because of official or unofficial policy of your employer -- whatever your job -- that is not license to create a false identity. Again, if you get unmasked -- unless you're very, very good at covering your tracks -- there will be hell to pay.

Tim Windsor
Director of Web Strategy, Johns Hopkins University
Former online news guy
Baltimore resident
Honda Element owner
Twitterholic
It is NEVER okay to use false names. The lesson of #2013 is the importance of authenticity and transparency. It is all about trust.
Mark,

You're a master of the concise.

:-)
False names and anonymous postings provide the same thing: indirect conversation. The whole point of social media should be to create genuine response and genuine dialog. In my opinion, you only achieve that kind of interaction when you have responses coming from a named source--even if a group is representing an admissions page or an institution's online presence. You cannot build community and interaction while hiding behind a pseudonym--people will wonder what else you were hiding when you are found out.

In the case of making posts under your real name without disclosure is equally tricky. Students know how to use Google and Yahoo to search for information about institutions. Beyond that, MySpace and RateMyProfessors.com have areas dedicated to discussion on profs, faculty and staff at any school a user wishes to look up. It's never difficult to put those items together.

Maybe facebookgate is an opportunity to talk to departments about brandjacking. A colleague of mine had a quick write up on the topic of brandjacking on his blog last fall with some points to consider. Even if you need to make the pages private, this is a case where, unfortunately, you have to try to stay one step ahead of "services" like College Prowler.
I would think that the answer to making comments under a false name would always be unethical. In these cases, you are clearly trying to mislead users.

If the ethics of it is not convincing enough, I agree that any benefit you may derive from posting under a false name is almost always outweighed by the risk of discovery and the ill-will that this would generate toward your institution.

I would think that there might be rare cases where posting anonymously might be ok, specifically where you are responding to a question / comment, but not in your capacity as a university representative. You may want to avoid any implied endorsement or support of a statement by the university. I could see this same rationale extending to posting with your real name and not disclosing your status as an employee.

However, in general, posts that are NOT anonymous typically carry more weight, and posts from those considered experts in an area (which your status as a university employee may designate you as) typically carry the most weight.

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