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July 31, 2008
My Social Media Love Manifesto
 
Quick, what single word that comes to mind when you try to describe social media? Authenticity? Immediacy? Participation?
What about meanness?
It seems the best way to drive traffic to your blog is to write that something or someone is:
  • Lame
  • Dead
  • Irrelevant
  • Clueless
It’s the social media version of the Mad Libs game. Title your blog post “[proper noun] is [adjective from above list]!” and watch the comments roll in!
The problem with this game is that often, innocent, or mostly innocent people are caught in the crosshairs, and exposed to undeserved risk to reputation and career.
Certainly public condemnation is called for in many situations, but where do you draw the line? Gross ethical misconduct? Easy call. But what about a poorly thought out business model, a bad user interface, or a momentary, innocent lapse in judgment? Do these kinds of situations deserve the social media equivalent of the public beating in the town square? Or is it that the risk to reputation and career of harsh public criticism directed at specific individuals and companies is outweighed by the usefulness of this kind or reportage in helping others avoid the same mistakes?
There are several things that encourage negative behavior in social media. The first is the idea that a good blog is one that gets lots of visitors and lots of links. That’s good if you sell advertising on your blog or if your ego demands it. So we write provocative headlines and we take on sacred cows. Because (mixing a few metaphors here) social media is like a day at the race track: some people come just to see the crashes.
Another more subtle factor is the need some of us feel, and I include myself in this category, to offer our professional wisdom to others in the industry. It’s often easiest to do that by commenting on a case study. Case studies involve real, identifiable people and their behavior, so it’s hard to write about them without naming the people involved.
In my journalism school days, during the Coolidge administration, we talked about the dismal failure of “good news:” print and broadcast news outlets designed to balance the doom, gloom, death and depravity highlighted every night on the evening news. The truth is, for whatever reason, bad news sells.
When I write about something I’ve read relevant to social media, PR or corporate communications, I try to base my analysis on the facts, and to avoid character assassination. I tend to stay away from the big four adjectives above, although I did call a couple of people “weasels.”
Lately, I have been giving a lot of thought as to whether all of this negativity is really necessary, and whether there is another healthier, more useful way to carry on these discussions.
This all started a few weeks ago when I left a comment on a blog in which I was critical of someone’s professional conduct. I soon realized that while I thought I was participating in an academic discussion on social media ethics, I was in fact unfairly questioning the integrity of a fellow professional based on only a handful of facts (those included in the blog post.) I did two things I have never done before. I apologized to this person, and I asked the author of the blog to delete my comment.
I then wondered, is it possible to talk about hypothetical conduct to avoid criticizing specific individuals, or is it only through “real life” case studies that we can understand difficult concepts, particularly in the area of ethics? What kind of conduct merits public disclosure? Where do we draw the line when it comes to criticizing the thoughts and deeds of others?
I’m not sure what the answers are. I’m still working through it. Until I figure it out, I have for the most part stopped using case studies on my blog, and have stopped criticizing people as a way to make a point.
And to help me establish my own rules of engagement, I decided to write my Social Media Love Manifesto. Despite the evidence that “good news” and kindness are not big sellers, I thought I would give it a shot.
While many claim that Web 2.0 and social media have brought with them new and uncharted terrain, where etiquette is defining itself with each advance and new rules are being written every day, the line between the online world and the real world was largely erased a long time ago, and there is no longer any reason for two sets of moral and ethical guidelines.
The people we “meet” in our online interactions are real people. They probably own a computer or two, write a blog or participate in a social network, and through the social media filter we see only glimpses of them, but that does not mean that they are not real, or that we are in any way excused from treating them like any other person we would meet.

I have therefore resolved that when writing on my blog, or when using any other form of social media, when calling into question the conduct of a specific, identifiable person, I will:
  • Base my comments on the facts, and make reasonable efforts to gather all of the relevant facts before weighing in on a controversial discussion.
  • Weigh carefully the value of any comments I choose to make against the potential for harm.
And I will not:
  • Make assumptions about people’s motivations.
  • Generate controversy for its own sake.
  • Join others by superficially “piling on” when someone is under attack
I will always strive to:
  • Treat people online with the respect and kindness I would extend to a friend or colleague.
  • Take time regularly to leave a supportive comment on a blog or acknowledge someone positively in a public forum.
Maybe I’m naïve or foolish. If I come across as didactic, preachy or self-serving, I don’t mean to. But I’d like to think we could all be a little nicer. Since I have agreed to follow my Social Media Love Manifesto, I have found less to write about on my blog, and my position in the Advertising Age Power 150 list of media blogs, the only ranking I watch, has slid gradually downward.
I’m a writer, and I try to choose my words carefully. That’s why I called this “My Social Media Love Mainfesto.” I wrote it for me, and I intend to give it a try. If you like it, feel free to use it. If you want to add to it, leave me a comment. And if you don’t like it, feel free to tell me why, but please try to be nice about it.

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Joel Postman is the principal of Socialized, a consultancy that helps companies make effective use of social media in corporate communications, marketing and public relations. He's the author of SocialCorp: Social Media Goes Corporate, a handbook designed to help corporate communicators and executives understand how to successfully adopt social business strategies in large companies. Prior to founding Socialized, he was EVP of Emerging Media at Eastwick Communications a Silicon Valley public relations firm, and before that, he has a decade of Fortune 500 corporate communications experience, including leadership roles in executive and internal communications at Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems.

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