Sparring Mind

Behavioral Psychology Blog

Transparency vs. Infotainment

In the world of startups, few topics have garnered as much buzz as transparency—the act of sharing previously private company information with the inquisitive public.

You can now find dozens if not hundreds of companies sharing, well, nearly everything. It’s an exciting development. After all, does anyone want more secrecy from the businesses they support?

To be sure, there’s plenty to build on, even in light of the more recent transparent gestures, like open dashboards and fully transparent salaries.

But the potential for those developments come with one caveat: companies that promote and engage in transparency also have to serve as the neighborhood watch; like the public park available to all, everyone’s responsible for keeping it clean.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen littering.

Turning the taboo into traffic

Transparency has always been an authentic (and effective) form of marketing when done well. But when transparency becomes a tool startups use in order to grow—and in many cases, it already has—the race is on to turn the taboo into traffic.

Will it be a race to the bottom?

Dumping information into the world without context trivializes transparency; it becomes little more than trading privacy for attention. Call it “infotainment”—the business equivalent of Jerry Springer, but less fun to watch.

We shouldn’t insulate positive developments from healthy critique and criticism; movement in any direction isn’t progression. It’s not only helpful but necessary to point out missteps when we see them.

Here are a few ways the transparency movement has already gone a little awry:

Renewed tolerance for old tricks. Because they promise “real metrics” and “inside looks,” too many shallow case studies, anecdotes, and quick-win growth hacks are being treated with undue reverence. Whatever valid insights they contain, they’re primarily PR. We can do better.

“All eyes on me, please.” There’s an odd cult of appreciation for transparent behavior at the moment, where those involved expect to be lauded for making public what was once private. In truth, disclosing data is not a brave or altruistic act all by itself.

A transparency arms-race afoot. When public revenue dashboards become passé, what’s next? One-upping usually leads to ugly outcomes, and I worry that those who are only (or primarily) embracing transparency in order to burnish their brand will be tripping over themselves to score the next big thing.

An absence of failure. One disturbing trend I’ve noticed is that the tell-all narrative only seems to apply when times are good. With few exceptions—like Rand Fishkin’s candid piece detailing the “series of wholly avoidable missteps” that led him to step down as CEO of Moz—transparency tends to focus on the wins.

When failure does occur, it’s either after the company has completely shut down (oops!), or it’s gift-wrapped with a misleading upside. But sometimes failure is just failure. It sucks. Shouldn’t we talk about that?

For every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction. Sick of the “lessons learned” hype-fest, many people have already begun to mock the fetish for pseudo-transparency, as the headline of this satirical post makes bitingly clear:

How Product Hunt Helped Me Grow A List Of 12,989,483,288+ Valuable Subscribers And Generate 220k+ In Sales In Less Than 20 Minutes Without Having To Write A Single Line Of Code And Also Taught Me These 5+ Startup Lessons From My Mistakes About Being A Product Manager in 2016

Humor aside, if income reports are just about the only thing we can expect from “transparent” companies, respect for transparent behavior will bite the dust.

I hope that doesn’t happen.

Ensuring transparency sticks around

You’ve heard plenty of times that in this attention-driven economy your eyeballs are sought after. If you’ve made it this far and agree that miles wide and inches deep is not your favored form of transparency, I also hope you’ll agree that attention casts a vote, and you should try to vote wisely. Fortunately, there’s already reason for encouragement:

  • Companies like Pinterest and Slack have openly shared their plans for creating more diverse, inclusive companies. Making important initiatives public creates real accountability.
  • Social movements like #TalkPay have seen tremendous traction, breaking down the “Last Taboo“—your salary—to encourage fairer compensation.
  • In some cases, customers are being better taken care of during times of crisis. Buffer’s transparent blogging during a 2013 security incident remains the gold standard. Each and every detail was shared through every step of the resolution.

Accountability, customer trust, fairness: these are authentic reasons to be excited about transparency, and they are what any change undertaken in its name must serve in order to be meaningful.

Let’s not pat ourselves on the back for sharing anything at all. Let’s be more discriminating, keeping the airwaves filled with substance and clearing way all of the rest.

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