Anonymity, compartmentalization or multibranding?

Are we seeing a trend towards more anonymity online? What are the implications of increased anonymity? Does being anonymous necessarily mean having something to hide?

These are some of the questions that Mitch Joel asks in today’s blog post: The Next Big Thing Online Could Well Be Anonymity:

The knee-jerk reaction to anonymity is that the person creating the content has “something to hide.” It’s logical, but it’s not the entire story. Some people simply feel more liberated to speak their mind knowing that who they are will not become a focal point within that discussion.

(Full disclosure: I’ve been working for Mitch and the team at Twist Image for a little over three years now. You’ll likely see quite a bit of content from the folks at TI on this space. That’s what happens when you’re lucky enough to work with smart people who write thought-provoking content.)

I think an excellent point has been raised here. And it occurs to me that we may be talking about the wrong thing. Instead of “anonymity” versus “transparency”, are we really not simply talking about compartmentalization? Or, to put it another way, a personal version of multibranding?

In fact, I think this is a particularly appropriate topic for the inaugural post of a new blog, launched by a person with a digital presence in quite a few arenas. So here goes:

What is the meaning of honesty?

The other day, I was having the other day with a friend of mine who is a professional writer. A financial journalist by day, she also writes science fiction novels and publishes them under a pen name. She’s quite actively involved in a number of online communities dedicated to her genre of fiction, connecting with readers and mentoring fellow writers. She was quite upset by a fan who recently attacked her for “hiding” behind a pseudonym and “concealing” her real identity.

It’s not fair, she argued. She thought of that fan as a true friend; someone with whom she had shared her innermost thoughts, hopes, fears, and some of the most intimate details of her life — things she would never dream of sharing with professional colleagues. How, she wanted to know, does that constitute “hiding”? How is that in any way less her “real identity” than the name that happens to appear on her birth certificate? The use of a pen name was irrelevant; a decision she made simply because the target audiences of her two forms of writing were so different.

Different markets, different brands

Writers, artists, actors and other celebrities have a long history of using pen names or stage names to separate their public and private lives. They know that, as much as fans may want to feel like friends, there’s a world of difference between the two. It’s not about honesty or hiding; it’s about targeting the right message to the right target market.

That’s something we marketers all ought to be able to wrap our heads around fairly easily. After all, Procter and Gamble sells toothpaste, diapers and batteries under different brand names. Why? Because the target market and the messaging strategy are different. Similarly, my friend’s sci-fi novel readers wouldn’t be the least bit interested in reading her analysis of European debt ratios, so why publish both under the same brand name?

We are all micro-celebrities

In effect, I would argue that Social Media hasn’t necessarily made us any more or less transparent, or more or less anonymous. What it has done, however, is it’s turned us all into micro-celebrities. We have all become publishers broadcasters of our thoughts, ideas, political views, rants, relationship struggles, and terrible-horrible-no-good-very-bad-days.

And we all have a number of people – whether it’s ten or ten thousand – who are our “fans”. They’re our Facebook acquaintances that we don’t know too well, our Twitter followers, our professional contacts on LinkedIn, our blog readers or our forum lurkers. And we all implicitly understand that there are some details of our lives that they have no business reading.

As such, we have all become micro-celebrities, each with our own (to borrow another Mitch Joel-ism) “personal brand”.

The question is, then, how many of these brands should one person have? How many do we need? How many can we realistically manage?


Some people get around this issue by having a very focused digital presence, and only ever putting things out there that relate to their chosen topic. Anything that doesn’t fit, they simply don’t publish at all. That’s one strategy, sure. But most of us have more than one area of interest. Like large multinational corporations, we are all diversified human beings. I am a digital marketer. I’m also a travelaholic, a writer, a a music fan, a political commentator, a chocoholic, a family member, and a friend.

Over the years, I have compartmentalized my online identity with a number of different web handles. Even the very existence of this new blog speaks to that strategy. This blog will be about marketing, but I also maintain several other blogs, each with its own targeted subject matter and readership.

The trouble is, managing all of these different identities can be tricky. It’s like a form of multiple personality disorder. (One imagines a long line of Michael Keaton-esque digital clones, each with a different handle, personality and digital presence.) Seriously, though, what happens when these different aspects of self converge or collide unexpectedly?

The trend towards convergence

The thing is, there’s only one of me. At the end of the day, just as Procter & Gamble needs to stand behind every one of its brands, I need to stand behind everything I publish – whether on my professional blog, on my political blog, in my travel community, or on my personal Facebook profile. I may use different handles, but I don’t exactly make a state secret of my identity anywhere. If I’m not comfortable with the notion that something could get crossover readership, I should think twice about publishing it in the first place.

If we’re seeing a trend thanks to Social Media, I would say it’s the convergence of this compartmentalization. With the tools out there today, it’s easier than ever to link your Facebook, Twitter, blog, LinkedIn profile, mobile application and professional website into one giant cross-posting feed. And suddenly, your grandmother can read your professional posts, your boss can see your drunken photos from St. Patrick’s Day, and the girl you haven’t spoken to since high school who is now living in Duluth can see your vacation photos. It’s as though Procter & Gamble suddenly stripped the brand names off all of its products and replaced them with a simple P&G logo.

So what does this mean for marketers?

People are clearly asking for more options to multibrand. They recognize that a one-brand-fits-all strategy doesn’t work for individuals any better than it works for large organizations. And by requesting more anonymity, they’re basically telling marketers that they want their right to compartmentalize to be respected.

To some degree, digital platforms are answering the call. From Facebook’s (complicated but still useful) lists filtering feature, to the ability of certain Twitter applications to selectively post Tweets based on hashtags, marketers are trying to answer this demand by providing these options.

But I say we can do better. And a first step is recognizing that anonymity does not necessarily mean dishonesty. Sometimes, it’s just about tailoring the message to the audience. And if we can’t understand that, who will?

What do you think? Should people be encouraged to post everything under their real name? Or is it okay, or even preferable, to have different “brands” for different audiences?

One Reply to “Anonymity, compartmentalization or multibranding?”

  1. I have to admit that this is a very interesting and timely question that you ask considering that thanks to social media we are becoming more and more exposed. Personally I think the true motivation behind having an alias may be simply out of fear of judgment from others. As you already know I’m an avid role-player and have been so for a great number of years and one perspective this has given me is one of open mindedness and flexibility towards . Inside each of us in a myriad of individuals, facets if you will, that we use to confront challenges. For example, many people have a work persona that will behave in certain professional ways as opposed to an off duty persona that is more at ease with friends and free to express their opinions without drawing ire from their employers or worry so much about public opinion. Now with the integration of social media employers are nosing in on our private lives and in an unfair manner because they look upon us with the judgment of the employer but we never get our fair shake to judge them in return from what they are when in the comfort of ther home.
    So it seems like it will end one of two ways , either people may never leave their work persona in case of being over hear or overseen and then life becomes a contest of who can stay professional the longest. Or until this issue gets brought to a high enough court and branded as a violation of privacy (which in my opinion it is blatantly so.)
    I’m of the opinion that if your work persona and your play persona cannot co exist it’s time for the work to take a hike, but I understand that not everyone is willing to make that sacrifice therefore they continue to life two lives. Though I must wonder what can do to one’s ego after a while. If one must hide behind a pseudonym out of fear of the masses then perhaps the masses’ opinion might occupy too much room for a well balanced perspective. That journey usually has to begin with the asking “Why am I so afraid of rejection?”
    On a completely unrelated point of view I also blame the media and modern advertising for trying to bring the countless possibilities of temperaments to it’s lowest common denominator in order to sell us things. This gross oversimplification, I believe, is actually making us less complex individuals as we try to fit in the molds held before us in order to gain acceptance, leading us into the lemming like suicide of our critical thinking. After all, repeat a lie often enough and it sounds like the truth.

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