Sock-Puppeting Puerilism

Normally smart people seem to lose all common sense when it comes to joining an online conversation under a fake name. The cloak of “sock puppeting” (a terrific phrase to describe the act of masking your identity when posting comments on a Web forum) can be incredibly empowering, even for people who already possess gobs of power.

John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods Market, is the latest poster boy for this inane and brand-damaging behavior. I’m sure you’ve heard the story by now: For more than seven years, Mackey posted comments on Yahoo message boards talking up Whole Foods and dumping on the competition. He posted under the handle “rahodeb” and never disclosed his true identify. Now he has the SEC on his back. Nice leadership. Nice irony too, considering his comments in the current issue of Fortune about his blog:   

“We want to communicate as honestly as we can. I am talking about the things I most care about. I don’t do what other bloggers do. I don’t post all the time. The great thing about blogging is that I don’t need you journalists to interpret me anymore.”

Yes, honesty. And integrity. And credibility. When you misrepresent yourself to others, you’re blowing off all three of those traits. I understand the limits that the CEO (or any officer) of a publicly traded company is under regarding what they can say about their business on public forums, but how that leads someone to make the leap to post anonymously on matters directly related to their company and business is beyond me. 

I guess the Web feeds our subconscious desires to perform uncivil acts without repercussions. Just as drivers hidden safely in their cars do unseemly things without pause – things they would never think of doing outside of their vehicles (cutting others off, tailgating, swearing in front of their kids) – the Internet (and its precursor, the online bulletin-board system) is a playground for drive-by postings from people lacking the confidence (or the balls) to stand behind their verbal attacks or contrarian opinions with their real names. (When I was with PC Week, a reader reacting to a negative column I wrote about Apple posted anonymously to express his desire that I would some day end up in prison getting gang-raped by a bunch of guys named Bubba, though he used far more colorful language to describe his fantasy. But I digress.)

Just as troubling as Mackey’s deception was his unapologetic response to being unmasked. Clearly, his actions aren’t in sync with the ideals for which his company supposedly stands. His own blog posting about “open, honest, candid communication” certainly rings hollow. When the actions of a company’s employees – from executives down to the rank and file – differ from the company’s brand promise, it will eventually lose the trust of its customers.

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