Going clear

A new restaurant opened up in our neighborhood recently. Or it didn’t. After months of false starts – first they were supposed to open in December, then it got pushed back to the spring, then the summer – the small storefront finally had a grand opening in September. A few weeks later, I stopped by only to find the windows papered over.

Papered-over door

In an expensive city with inscrutable licensing regulations, it’s not surprising that a restaurant would have trouble opening on time and staying solvent. The surprising thing is that I could learn so little about what exactly happened, and whether there was any hope of a future opening. The spot had a Twitter account and a Facebook page, but both were updated very sparingly and many would-be customers’ questions went unanswered, both as the initial wait dragged on and after the mysterious closure.

The radio silence could’ve been blamed on a few bad apples; apparently, the owners encountered some overeager patrons banging on their door and not so politely inquiring about when they could get some damned duck soup dumplings. That’s not cool, but the restaurant could’ve saved itself some difficulty just by being a bit more transparent.

Transparency is table stakes these days. We expect our politicians to share their taxes and their emails and want our restaurants to divulge their food sources. The first rule of being a popular celebrity or business leader is to be willing to put it all out there – or at least to fake it well. Transparency may not be the same as authenticity, but most have figured out that if you hold too much back, people are going to wonder what you’re hiding.

Funny, then, that the companies that enable so much of this sharing and brand-building would also be so frustratingly oblique.

Over the past couple of years, Twitter has rolled out several updates that are aimed at making the platform simpler for users and more attractive for advertisers. Most have been met with a resounding ‘meh’ – and only solicited more questions from power users about ongoing issues with harassment and abuse. Company leadership has made some steps in acknowledging its problems, but with each half-step release and non-response, disgruntlement grows.

Of course, tell an SEO professional that Twitter’s not transparent enough, and they’ll laugh in your face. Google is a notorious black box: It can take months before experts decipher what, exactly, has changed in the company’s latest algorithm update and how to respond – usually just in time for the next landscape-altering adjustment. As Reply All recently covered, Google is just as tight-lipped about its criteria for pulling offensive or misleading ads – a policy it defends by saying that if people knew the rules, they’d more easily come up with ways around them.

There’s undoubtedly some truth to that, and I’m not suggesting everyone needs to know everything. Anyone who’s worked in a large organization or planned communications knows that sharing every bit of information can be unnecessary and counterproductive. But if you have information you know your audience will benefit from – and it’s not illegal to share it – a little extra transparency can go a long way. See: The New York Times’ decision to put its legal correspondence front and center, or The Verge publicly documenting its ‘brand refresh’.

Not everyone is a media outlet (sorry, Clay Shirky) with the time, energy or knowledge to offer up-to-date information for the masses. But small businesses just getting off the ground – and even those going through a particularly tough time – don’t need a full-fledged publishing operation or even an unpaid social media manager. They just need to remember that if you don’t peel back the paper from your windows a little bit, you might soon find there’s no one left trying to peek inside.

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