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Augmented Legality
BlogsPublications | June 13, 2014
4 minute read
Augmented Legality

Anonymous Social Media in the Workplace

One of the latest trends in social media is anonymous speech. Sites such as Secret, Whisper, and Yik Yak invite users to post without identifying themselves. The goal is to release users from their inhibitions and, according to Secret, allow "people to be themselves and share anything they’re thinking and feeling with their friends without judgment." Predictably, a large percentage of this content is prurient, petty and spiteful in nature.

Yik Yak, which has proven popular among students, has particularly been a hotbed for rumor-mongering and bullying.  In a recent article, psychologist Dr. Keith Ablow called Yik Yak "the most dangerous app I've ever seen," adding:

Psychologically, Yik Yak actually removes all pretense of being a person with empathy, genuinely connected to other human beings. So it is no wonder that Yik Yak has become the ultimate tool for bullies, especially at the high school level, who want to target another student or a faculty member and — without any consequences, whatsoever — anonymously destroy that person’s reputation.

Indeed, I personally discovered Yik Yak from a school administrator in the audience of one my speeches on social media law. He lamented the effects that the site had had on his student body.

But the explanation of why communication on this site is so often harmful applies equally to any anonymous platform. Even the names of services carry the implied promise of hidden, forbidden knowledge and salacious details not available anywhere else. They also give the freedom and impetus to invent "secrets" that never happened, and to attack others without consequence. In 2012, the creators of PostSecret--a similar app that helped inspire today's Whisper--shut the service down because they couldn't control the malicious content.

The revelations on these sites have not been limited to personal information. They have already led to anonymous disclosures of corporate secrets as well. One journalist wrote about his own Secret account:

Browsing through the feed each day, I’ve seen credible rumors’ about tech founders’ infidelity and workplace behavior. I’ve seen paeans to marijuana and cocaine that would be unimaginable on any other social network. I’ve seen patently false rumors of impending company acquisitions, and oddly sweet mash notes to anonymous friends and lovers.

Not all the "corporate rumors" turn out to be false. In April 2014, Nike laid off as many as 55 employees in their wearable computing division. A rumor of the move had first appeared days earlier on Secret.

Nevertheless, earlier this month, Secret announced a new feature geared specifically for the workplace. Called "Secret Dens," this feature "brings a new layer to your Secret stream, giving you a private, company-specific Den to share anything you’re thinking —kept within the walls of your workplace." Although Secret Dens are currently being piloted with a small group of companies, Secret intends to make Secret Dens "available to more companies, universities and organizations soon."

It's a fair guess that many HR departments will not welcome this development. Perhaps if Secret Dens were marketed as a 21st-Century form of the anonymous employee feedback box, it would carry some veneer of workplace utility. But none of the four sample posts in the screenshots Secret has published along with its announcements serve any such purpose. One is a complaint about which way the bathroom toilet paper faces. The second is a snapshot of someone mopping, which--depending on the context--could convey multiple meanings, from praise to harassment. The third pertains to an employee's date from the night before, and the fourth shows an employee working remotely outdoors--which may or may not be consistent with company policy and that person's duties.

This is not unlike what we already find employees posting on social media, including on pages dedicated to their employers. HR departments must already handle such content and decide whether and how to respond. But the addition of the anonymous aspect will complicate this process tremendously. Take, for example, a restaurant employee who threatens to adulterating food served to customers (or videos themselves actually carrying it out). There is no question that such employees will face swift punishment. But what if the employee can't be identified?  The public's trust in the restaurant will suffer, and the company may be unable to do anything about it.

It also seems inevitable that companies with Secret Dens will deal with (actual and implied) threats and harassment against employees,  suggestions of workplace violence, violations of company policies, and the like.  Again, none of this content will be unique to the site, but as we've already seen in other contexts, the promise and lure of anonymity draws the worst out of many people.

To its credit, Secret promises to quickly remove content that is flagged as inappropriate. It remains to be seen, however, whether such self-policing methods will be adequate to assuage the concerns (and potential liability) of employers. I'd wager that we will find out very soon how these anonymous websites respond to subpoenas and other requests to disclose the identities of "anonymous" users.