Legitimacy and Transparency in the Age of Social Media


By Colin Ryan

Industry News

The interwebs have been abuzz with the recent controversy about an alleged Russian spy ring since the U.S. Department of Justice announced the indictments in an official press release on June 28. According to The New York Times, the suspects were instructed to gather information about nuclear weapons programs and CIA leadership, among other topics. Two of the accused had legitimate jobs and contacts in the real estate industry. Instead of adding to the glut of coverage on the ins and outs of this case, however, I’m going to concentrate on the issues it raises about legitimacy and transparency.

Romy Ribitzky of recently wrote a fun piece on Anna Chapman’s comments about entrepreneurship during New York Entrepreneur Week. In that article, I learned that Chapman actually ran a real estate startup company called Property Finder. That an alleged Russian spy and the folks here at Placester have something in common points to a distressing question: in the entrepreneurial world of new media, where company image and effective networking are integral and complex components of success, how do we know who to trust?

To begin with, we trust people and companies who are honest. Take Redfin, for instance. Another of the accused, Tracey (Ann) Foley, worked for Redfin as a contract field agent, and her indictment of course attracts unwanted attention. As an outside contractor, Foley was only distantly affiliated with the company; nevertheless, the only thing people love more than a flood of information is jumping to conclusions based on tiny snippets of it. Redfin’s response, however, was an elegant piece of PR: timely, forthcoming, and calm. It provides the facts, defuses the controversy, and moves on.

Nevertheless, Redfin’s comments represent a reaction to something that’s already happened. How can we prove to users that we’re legitimate on an everyday basis? The answer is not so easy. The first step is mastering the new media voice: at once easygoing, informative, energetic, and clear, without ever being too informal, cute, or sterile. Beyond that, it comes back to transparency. But how much is too much? Every company has to start somewhere, and often enough that place is two computers in a university bedroom or basement. But investors and users don’t want to see that. They want to see a crisp, professional user experience, an interface that offers the same sense of class as the watermark on a piece of off-white company stationery. They want to see that in addition to good ideas, there is a proven record of successful and mutually beneficial dealings behind the innovative service or product you’re offering.

Naturally, this is what we all aspire to create for our companies. But as people like Anna Chapman show, more complex deliberations are required on the Internet when the sheisters become nearly impossible to spot. We’ve known for years that the web, unregulated and ethereal as it is, offers people the chance to be whoever or whatever they want. This is usually a good thing; sometimes, however, it provides a front of legitimacy for people with something to hide, people who have had success at the expense of others instead of by working with others.

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