Friday, January 09, 2009

What Is Transparency?

Friday, January 9, 2009
What Is Transparency?
By Max Kalehoff

Wired editor and "The Long Tail" author Chris Anderson introduces  the Conservation Law of Transparency -- meaning you can't be open in all things all the time. While that may be true, his argument subtly implies that transparency is an absolute. I'm not sure if that was intended, but it's a false and important assumption to address within an otherwise interesting concept.

Chris's explanation of the Law includes descriptions such as "truly transparent" and "true transparency." Even his phrase "can't be transparent about everything all the time" suggests one either IS or IS NOT absolutely transparent about certain things and not about others.

Here's the problem: unless your context is physics (i.e., the ability of light to travel through an object), transparency is largely subjective, and varies across groups and individuals. Social norms rarely exist that allow agreement on whether something is transparent or not. Sorry, life's messy.

Transparency has problems similar to its cousin, full disclosure, which was born in the halls of the SEC. It was intended as a regulatory guarantee that a company's material news reached all stakeholders equitably, says my PR guru friend,  Peter Himler. When applied liberally -- beyond a narrow, technical circumstance -- full disclosure and transparency fall victim to subjectivity, becoming nothing more than aspirations. Aspirations are noble, but NOT absolutes. I suppose you could be absolute in your commitment to an aspiration, though.

Also, Chris is wise to acknowledge the cost of transparency: "Transparency is hard work. Constantly updating the world on your status can become a job all by itself." Indeed, a full, absolute commitment to transparency in every aspect of one's life would be inefficient, and probably shut life down.

There's also a cost -- if not conflict -- associated with ethics and standards. For example, would it be wise for a returning soldier from Iraq to be completely transparent with his four-year-old son about what it's like to kill another man? Certainly not immediately, but perhaps when the child is older. Or, should a dinner guest be completely transparent about how disgusting the host's cooking is? I would argue no.

So, what is transparency, anyway? What do you think? In the circumstance, you have license to be brutally honest -- er, transparent -- with me.

Max Kalehoff is vice president of marketing for Clickable, a search-marketing solution for small and mid-size businesses. He also writes

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