Guess what? Rabodeb is not his “real” name

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 company’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 — a variation of Deborah, his wife’s name — Mr. Mackey typed out more than 1,100 entries on Yahoo Finance’s bulletin board over a seven-year period, championing his company’s stock and occasionally blasting a rival, Wild Oats Markets.

The story was first disclosed on The Wall Street Journal’s Web site last night.

Responding to a posting on March 28, 2006, Rahodeb wrote: “OATS 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.”

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, “Hey John — I mean Rahodeb,” he wrote on June 10, 2003: “Another person who thinks my name is John (Mackey)! Well if you really believe I’m John Mackey you should probably pay more attention to what I say on this board. I would be the ultimate Whole Foods Insider!”

Mr. Mackey’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 Foods’ 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 company’s Web site late Wednesday, acknowledging that he used the pseudonym “Rahodeb” on Yahoo financial bulletin boards from 1999 until last summer. He said the F.T.C. discovered his alias “through one of the millions of litigation documents that Whole Foods provided to them.”

“I posted on Yahoo! under a pseudonym because I had fun doing it,” he wrote. “I never intended any of those postings to be identified with me.”

Mr. Mackey said the views expressed sometimes represented his beliefs. In other instances, he said, he offered different views from his own to play devil’s advocate.

He said no proprietary information on Whole Foods was disclosed.  But Mr. Mackey’s writings are proving to be a critical element in the Federal Trade Commission’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.

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Kim Cameron

Work on identity.

2 thoughts on “Guess what? Rabodeb is not his “real” name”

  1. I'd suspect the regulator SEC would want that officers of a public company who are discussing their company in a public forum not hide that they are officers.


    “”The straight-out easiest way of making a case (against Mackey) would be if his (postings) had a misstatement or omission of material facts,” [James Cox, a securities law professor at Duke University] says. Misstating or omitting material facts in interstate commerce violates the general anti-fraud provisions of the securities law, he adds. “If it turns out there was a material misrepresentation, he's going to have hell to pay,” Cox says. But even if Mackey didn't lie, Cox thinks his failure to disclose his identity could be “an omission of a material fact.””

  2. Maybe I'm way off base but this just seems too wierd. If he SPOKE as an officer of a public company and made statements that involved omission of material facts, I agree. But if he speaks through a fictional character, can that character be held to the same bar? What are the precedents?

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