A rivetting “natural” story of pseudonymity has risen to prime time in America's financial press – partly because government prosecutors have entered the fray. We're not talking here about a teenager, novelist, or garret inhabitant. This involves a corporate executive – John P. Mackey, co-founder of Whole Foods Market, who we have just found out goes by the name of “Rahodeb“.
Some of us would surmise, just by looking at the name “Rahodeb”, that it isn't the name of a real person.
In fact, it doesn't take very many marbles to conclude that “Rahodeb” is the name of someone who wants to comment but doesn't want to be identified – maybe because he or she has “an axe to grind”. And what's wrong with that, as long as they're clear about it.
Apparently, it just doesn't go with apple pie. Here's how the New York Times played the story:
He is a self-described vegan and libertarian who pays himself $1 a year as chairman and chief executive and maintains a blog on the companyâ€™s Web site where the posts are occasionally barbed.
As it turns out, that was only the half of it. For seven years, Mr. Mackey had an online alter ego.
Using the pseudonym Rahodeb â€” a variation of Deborah, his wifeâ€™s name â€” Mr. Mackey typed out more than 1,100 entries on Yahoo Financeâ€™s bulletin board over a seven-year period, championing his companyâ€™s stock and occasionally blasting a rival, Wild Oats Markets.
The story was first disclosed on The Wall Street Journalâ€™s Web site last night.
Responding to a posting on March 28, 2006, Rahodeb wrote: â€œOATS has lost their way and no longer has a sense of mission or even a well-thought-out theory of the business. They lack a viable business model that they can replicate. They are floundering around hoping to find a viable strategy that may stop their erosion. Problem is that they lack the time and the capital now.â€
Mr. Mackey apparently did not fool participants on the forum, who occasionally tried to out Rahodeb. In one instance, he responded by saying that he was in fact George W. Bush.
In response to another posting, titled, â€œHey John â€” I mean Rahodeb,â€ he wrote on June 10, 2003: â€œAnother person who thinks my name is John (Mackey)! Well if you really believe Iâ€™m John Mackey you should probably pay more attention to what I say on this board. I would be the ultimate Whole Foods Insider!â€
Mr. Mackeyâ€™s alias surfaced in a footnote in a 40-page court document filed on June 6 by lawyers for the Federal Trade Commission, which is trying to block Whole Foodsâ€™ acquisition of Wild Oats on the ground that it would limit competition among natural and organic groceries.
Whole Foods announced in February that it planned to buy its smaller rival for $565 million. Mr. Mackey posted a response on his companyâ€™s Web site late Wednesday, acknowledging that he used the pseudonym â€œRahodebâ€ on Yahoo financial bulletin boards from 1999 until last summer. He said the F.T.C. discovered his alias â€œthrough one of the millions of litigation documents that Whole Foods provided to them.â€
â€œI posted on Yahoo! under a pseudonym because I had fun doing it,â€ he wrote. â€œI never intended any of those postings to be identified with me.â€
Mr. Mackey said the views expressed sometimes represented his beliefs. In other instances, he said, he offered different views from his own to play devilâ€™s advocate.
He said no proprietary information on Whole Foods was disclosed. But Mr. Mackeyâ€™s writings are proving to be a critical element in the Federal Trade Commissionâ€™s case.
I'm going to come clean and lay all my cards on the table. I do think Whole Foods cuts its rib eyes too thick. And I don't know all the issues involved in the Whole Foods / Wild Oats “merger”.
Isn't it obvious that attacking Mackey for using a pseudonym on a site that is clearly built around pseudonyms “lacks logic”? If you want a web site where people reveal their identities, that's fine, but would you then let a “Rahodeb” join up in the first place, much less put up 1,100 postings? And maybe you need some due diligence before admitting “Surgeon General” and “Boston Cowboy” as well.
If Mackey did anything illegal, along the lines of leaking information he was legally bound to keep confidential, then criticism and legal action would be called for – but should be directed at the betrayal of responsibility, not the use of a pseudonymous identity.
So personally, in spite of all of this, I'm not going to stop shopping at Whole Foods.
Let's get to the point where web sites indicate what their policies are. If a site doesn't accept pseudonymous identities, that's perfectly reasonable. We need icons and other mechanisms to make that clear.
But for those sites where pseudonymity is valued, members pay their money and take their chances. On pseudonymous sites, you don't know who someone really is. That means they could be anyone – even John P. Mackey – as many readers of Yahoo's finance bulletin board apparently surmised.