I have been giving a lot of thought to the challenges of social networking/social media over the last few months. Actually, I have been following the phenomenon since about 2002 when Diane Hessan, CEO of Communispace, first briefed me on her company. But like a lot of new things, context comes slower than the reality of the product. At first I only saw the incredible benefits that social media could provide and it has taken a while for the technology to mature and begin to take its place in the tool set. As it has done so, the down side has come into sharp focus.
A lot of the potential down side of social networking, has already been seen in other social media, specifically in blogging (gulp!). That’s right, blogging, and there’s a still smoldering debate, dare I say controversy, over the differences between blogging and ‘real’ journalism.
Journalism is both practice and profession and it is overseen by a loose but very effective set of professional standards such as the US Constitution (let me be provincial here but other Western countries have similar but not identical safeguards for the freedom of speech), libel laws, and professional standards like fact checking.
Take one of these standards, fact checking as an example. Journalists hold themselves to (usually) high standards for verifying facts before they are reported; bloggers, as Jon Stewart might say, not so much. While the First Amendment provides a great deal of protection to the fourth estate, over the centuries, journalists have done a reasonable job of not hiding behind it to publish pure rubbish — at least in this country and not including the New York tabloids or their British cousins.
My simple point is that social media has loosened our moorings and we really get all stripes out there from responsible users of social media to its polar opposite. (Parenthetically, this reminds me of the sexual revolution when suddenly people were ‘free’ to pursue the opposite sex, in both directions. It was a fun party for a while but sooner or later we all came to realize that just because societal norms were loosened it didn’t mean we no longer had a need for personal standards. People who learned this lesson late suffered from all sorts of ill effects like disco bars.) But I digress.
Loosened standards is what makes social media at once both a danger and an opportunity for business. In business we need facts and firm data upon which we can make decisions. Not understanding the limitations of the data churned up by social media can seriously hurt a company and your career.
All of the innovations in social media over the last few years have provided enormous freedoms to people, putting the “means of production” a wonderful old economics term, into the hands of the masses but without controls.
So the issue really is one of personal standards, knowing what you want to get out of the new technology and even knowing when you’ve gotten it. Whether it’s social interactions, blogging or social networking, it still behooves us to accept a certain amount of personal responsibility for the new freedoms that technology has wrought and to act with caution on the output.