Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Caveat attemptor! The ethics and mores of social media---the Hump Day Hmm for 2-6-2008

Social media: Yeah, it's a little bit like this, if busy children in a tunnel could be considered tweets.

Let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start...

A long time ago I worked in technology. I know, me, the technophobic Luddite. But back then it was exciting, rather than overwhelming and was also the place where the money was.

I was tired of the fun but poverty-stricken jobs of "back up script writer for TV show/talent wrangler/gofer/PR and copywriter/fan mail answerer/WTFever they needed me to do" and "poorly paid and much-abused political writing hack." Not to mention the thrilling "bill researcher and translator for rich people worried about what politicians were doing with their money" and the can't beat it "no job whatsoever despite college degree and extensive efforts ACK ACK ACK!!" jobs (or lack thereof).

Although I gained extensive experience and talents in forging (whether it be handwriting or way someone else talks), my bank account sobbed its sad story to me every day, and so, the next time the job agent called me, I signed up for Well Paid Technical Writer.

Engineers are generally so overjoyed to find someone who knows their language---always approach with food, no more than a slight smile, and act interested in code for at least half an hour before getting to the real purpose of your visit---that they will cling ferociously to the writer who can magically translate what they mean into words the Revered Users will understand. Infuse your interactions with a little glowing-eyed admiration and they will be yours forever. (You hear the joking tone, right?)

And friends, I could do this for hardware, software, web work...you name it. None of it was beyond my ken or dentistry (because let's be honest: sometimes getting an explanation from an engineer who is sure it is patently obvious is worse than pulling teeth).

It is to my credit that I was a very versatile and successful technical writer who was generally well-liked. But as my dissatisfaction with my work grew---coincidentally along with the expansion of technology---my disconnect with my coworkers widened as well.

Then the worm turned, as worms are wont to do...

"But what's the point of this tool?" my conscience demanded, my mind certain we were surfing a technological bubble for no purpose other than to create one more toy without thought to any raison d'etre beyond scoring the big one for the creator.

The developers seemed invested in technology for technology's sake. They gave no apparent pause to consider the effect---or IMPACT as people are so fond of saying now---or potential cultural consequence of what they developed.

"When you talk about maximum efficiency output...does that number right there...could it be indicating the number of people whose jobs will be displaced by this tool?" I asked. The crowd was annoyed not by my question---which it considered moot and pointless---but by my interruption to their ecstatic flow of possibilities.

"Just because something can be doesn't mean it should be," I tried to point out.

I began biting the very hand that fed me.

I questioned the reason, the point, and the need. I became concerned about what I felt was a blind rush forward...a mass leaping without looking. After a rather dreadful job, weary of a culture I no longer believed in; exhausted from frequent and rapid turnovers of companies, names, bosses, mission statements; tired of jetting to other cities to coordinate and "cohese" (yes, based on word cohesive. Don't ask.) with newly acquired or newly acquiring coworkers; constant meetings to consolidate style standards to the point we never actually implemented them, at least not before next takeover; and endless conferences to Keep Up...I leapt off.

"That's it," I said, "I'm finished. It's time for a return to my original dream, and the pursuit of actual writing and publishing...putting out things that have meaning, purpose, and enrich lives, rather than simply make them more efficient."

I find that blogging can meet this goal, too.

So then, where do these new and ever evolving social media tools fit in? Are they expedient or extraordinary?

The conversation takes a sudden, yet arguably marginally well-hooked, turn towards the main point...

After my Twitter Do or Don't post, I signed up with Twitter and tried it out. How have I found it?

I have found it.

Yes, that's all.

I have ample random thoughts all day from my children. My few ventures in inquiries---attempts to get answers to questions or gather information---were singularly unsuccessful.

It served no necessary purpose.

It might be the medium. What, after all, is the difference between the status in Facebook versus the brief commentaries in Twitter? Not much.

It is a nice way to be chummy with friends-at-a-distance. And that's okay.

It was a personal thing, interacting with people I already liked so of course I'd enjoy whatever they posted at Twitter. And I did.

But are these social media and networks a blind rush forward, much art, little matter, and a potentially big fall?

I think so. All of the obvious, much discussed ethical issues aside (safety, abuse, criminal activity, etc.), I am concerned about this loose use of the term "friend" and "follower." We have enough of a struggle to understand and discern our relationships with others.

I'm not sure how many years it took me to grasp the varying levels of friendships. Many. I will probably work at it longer, still.

There are:

* people I know,

* people I trust,

* people who are probably nice but with whom I haven't much rapport but need to get along with due to proximity,

* people I shouldn't trust even though they might be okay simply because I don't know them well enough,

* people I used to know,

* and, of course, friends.

I believe these nuances as even more subtle in social media than they are in real life.

Add to that this concept of "spread this message/application/cyber gift" and "collect as many 'friends' as you can to enhance your 'popularity' and have the biggest number next to your friend category" pressures and social media can become worse than high school. (Not to mention some of the troubling ways high schoolers use it.)

Has the expression changed from "he who dies with the most toys wins" to "he who dies with the largest number of social media 'friends' or 'followers' wins?"

It takes a lot of time to marginally stay in touch with a small percentage of my online contacts, without as much regularity as I'd like sometimes. I can't imagine the time investment for people with 10 times as many contacts as I have. And consider...that's often a small number! What is sacrificed to maintain these huge lists of online contacts?

Stepping up even another level, many of these people are building these lists without full and honest disclosure.

The idea of social media as marketing tool appears to be to initially build a trust through a personal contact. The next step, if you are doing this for business reasons, is to begin slowly but surely manipulating the relationship until it is close enough that when you begin fishing for your business, the contact bites.

In my opinion, that bites. The big one.

A flashback sort of metaphor demonstrates how one can use and be used within social media...

As a young woman, I took a job in Atlanta. God love you people who live there. It's beautiful and I'm sure wonderful in many ways, but I found it hot (duh) and humid (duh) and culturally perplexing. Everybody was so roundabout, and slightly clannish. I found myself often vaguely suspicious of the friendliness, which I suspected masked a different purpose.

My last boyfriend now an ex and my best friend in New York, I was lonely. So when a nice young man I worked with invited me to lunch, I said yes. When he asked me to dinner, I ran out and bought a great dress with the biggest shoulder pads I could find (it was 1990, cut slack). I didn't feel a strong connection but he was nice, and it was a good diversion from my boring trek to and from work and home. That doesn't mean I didn't feel horribly betrayed when, after a post-date conversation---people still spoke in person then, cell phones and texting not yet the primary means of communicating---he broached the topic of my father.

I wonder if he agonized at all about how to bring it up. He certainly slipped into my good graces smoothly. He disarmed my defenses and natural suspicion by appearing very genuine, sincere and nice.

He may even have actually liked me, may even have actually enjoyed the time we spent together, although he kept that rather short before finally getting to the True Purpose of our acquaintance: his career aspirations.

He wanted to get somewhere in a competitive market and I was a seemingly easy path to my father, who could get him there. Or so he thought.

"...so do you think you could set it up so I could meet your father? Talk to him about that job opening in his group?" he asked me as we sat across from one another at a round break table outside.

"You...you want to meet with my father? That's what you want?" I asked dumbly, my pride breaking in half, my ego crumbling, "That's why you asked me out? To get in?"

He paused, "That's not the only reason, but yes, I would like to meet your dad."

He seemed so careless about it. Untroubled.

"Well," I said, angrily, "You blew it. I am not anyone's means to any end."

I stormed away and refused to ever speak to him again. I was young and fiery, but not necessarily wrong.

That's social media---or social media as it is in many cases.

So why build in one more layer of confusion, distraction, and frustration? Does social media have a positive purpose?

Despite the possible abuse and harm, as my personal example demonstrates, I don't think we ought to dismiss, disband, or begin imposing any rules on social media.

It does have a positive role. As I mentioned, it's a good way to stay in touch with distant friends, quickly and often humorously. I'm sure there is potential beyond what I found---other people certainly think so. Even if I don't find it particularly necessary, others do and that makes it a useful tool.

I believe that ultimately people will prevail in mastering this tool as something beneficial and positive for themselves, which will, on the whole, manage it to be something positive.

How? Through ethical implementation and application and social media mores.

What I think we need to do with ethics and mores and social media...

If you think of humans and all we do as possible bucking broncos, then mores are the hours of training in the circle and are the gentle hands holding our reins. They guide us into well-mannered behavior so that we may all share the same riding path (in general, exceptions aside).

When we create a new social dynamic, eventually our commonly held ideas of right and wrong figure out a way to fill in the blank spaces, and mores for that space are created.

The same will happen for social media. I believe it is already happening.

Regardless, we need to adopt a wise attitude about using it. We need to be cautious, and, as in all things, mindful.

As I did with my Atlanta coworker, I think too many of us want to believe, and we too easily suspend our disbelief. Then we are caught up or caught unaware or are left confused and bewildered, possibly betrayed or hurt.

Even with less drama in the outcome, I think we all need to carefully consider how we use and how we are used within social media. Employ the technology with your own ethics and mores in mind---ask whether you need it, whether it enriches your life or fulfills your goals. Consider the actions you take, how the affect you and your goals, and also how they might affect others.

As is typical since the technological era began, our technology is well ahead of our ability to manage our tools in a safe and healthy way in many cases. But I believe that we will, as we have in our day-to-day life, intelligently sort okay from not okay in social media. Positive effects will reward okay and negative consequences will punish not okay.

So...caveat attemptor! And enjoy!

What do you think?

Copyright 2008 Julie Pippert
Also blogging at:
Using My Words
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TwoSquareMeals said...

A post on why I'd rather see you in person. I had a tough time with this one, and it was my topic!

mommybytes.com said...

Hi Julie, here's my very first Hump Day Hmm!!! To be honest, I didn't know that Hump Day referred to Wednesday being the middle or hump of the week and for years always thought it had the "other" meaning. LOL! But now that I've been following you Hump Day Hmm-ers, I quietly sat on the sidelines because the topics were often too serious for me. But I love Twitter and had to chime in this week!! Now, I'll have to clear out a half hour to digest this post.. and perhaps come back later for a real comment.

I remember someone commenting that you would not go well with Twitter because it has a 140 character limit. Too true! Maybe think of it as an exercise in conciseness...

Holy smokes, I see Blogger reopened the generic URL field in comments again. Those b@$^@&#$ can't make up their minds.

SciFi Dad said...

This was an interesting take on the subject.

As someone who has used the internet as a social tool for years (long before the current-era boom), I think I have a different perspective.

While in some cases social networking and internet relationships (using the term loosely to mean both romantic and platonic types) in general have an element of the unknown, most of the time there is a roughly equal ratio of known to unknown when contrasted with "real life".

Online, people are more likely to fudge facts about appearance or socio-economic status than they are in real-life. However, they are also more likely to be honest about things because of the virtual barrier the internet provides.

Contrast that with randomly meeting someone in person; they cannot hide what they look like, but will be less open with opinions and what not because of social conditioning or other factors.

In reality, both generalizations above have their exceptions, but that is my point. Deception isn't limited to online; there are slimy men in the real world too, for example.

As to the specific area of social network building in a virtual system, I agree: it is a lot like adolescents trying to build a high popularity count. BUT, I think a lot of this has to do with the recent surge in popularity of these types of systems.

Consider how we used the internet back in the early 1990s (think command-line driven, text only web browsers, or mail clients that depended heavily on function keys - and only in flat text, or narrow-bandwidth connectivity with its low-res images). The "fringe" or non-tech users at the time? They used email and forwarded stupid jokes or spam or ASCII art of women's breasts (or was that just engineering students?). Email was the end of the post office, right?


We're at the same point now with social networks. The majority of the users are the non-tech types who are enjoying the novelty of the moment. But soon it will settle down, and people will figure things out.

OK, I better stop. I'm rambling and don't even know if this made any sense.

Suz said...

Your skip through the job market so closely mirrors my own that it's not even funny. Seriously, what's an English major to do when there are no jobs and those that can be found pay 25K for 70+ hours of work a week?

Why were we not told?

Or, at least, I wasn't told.

But that's a topic for another post. I think that there's a vast generation gap in social networking and suspect that people my age are using it much differently (and more tentatively) than the much younger folk where friendship tends to be much more vital, fraught, and volatile. I know that this makes me sound very old, but I think that there's a truth in it.

When I use social networking, it's for novelty and to keep up with people I already know as friends (mostly) IRL. I form friends very carefully online - I always lurk for a looooong time before commenting on a blog and am, well, careful. I don't think that the high schoolers and others are. And that's a problem.

mommybytes.com said...

I'm too quick to click.. Can you delete my Mr. Linky so I can put the correct link up?

Here it is for the commenters: hmmmmm

And in terms of bringing food to the engineers, that is totally true. And yes, Twitter is just like the status on Facebook, and in fact, is the status on my Facebook page.

mommybytes.com said...

Never mind, I can delete a Mr. Linky but not a comments. ARGH on this web technology!!!

I think things have also progressed from the days of MySpace where everyone and anyone wants to be your friend (and some of them are quite annoying and persistent) to now, where people are starting to be more cautious and careful about who they "befriend". Not to say you don't have your jerks who put up pornographic images on their Twitter pages (good thing my son wasn't around when I clicked it).

And of course my end point was that I'm not really "me" online, no personal info so people can track me down in real life, unless I get to know them extremely slowly and cautiously (met only one "online" friend in real life).

Julie Pippert said...

2sq, yes I know, sometimes I think actual in person discussion would somehow be better on some topics, but on this one there is some value to actually using the medium under discussion. :)

And your post was good!


Angela, you perv! LOL Glad you chimed in.

I *can* actually be concise, and have been. This topic? Long, because in depth.

I never came close to the twitter word limit.

I hope we are right about the maturing of the users along with the tool.


SciFi Dad, I think it's true that the "truth factor" ends up about even online versus in real life. I also think that the "real" us ends up shining through, regardless of persona we endeavor to adopt...if we are generally honest people and I think most of us try to be.

If one is a jerk online, odds are people find that person somewhat of a jerk in real life, and vice versa.

I can't hardly remember the early 1990s. I think too much hair spray killed brain cells AND the ozone. LOL

But yes, it wasn't somethign people regularly used. It was more of a response to the broadening of the world market and widening of community.

It does end up being a chicken and egg question, in a way.

I remember moving from books to online help then to Web help.

My line in the sand came when companies began saying the easy-to-use software and GUIs were SO OBVIOUS that they didn't owe any instructions to users. It wasn't that it made my job obsolete (it ironically didn't), it was the attitude.

But I digress.

I think we agree that people are smarter than our fear sometiems give them credit for being. But again, it brings up the generation and maturity gap issue.

Can we say the same about the youth?


Suz, since I've referenced your comment in my reply here and in my replies elsewhere already, let's just say I think it's an excellent one. Maturity and generation gap are crucial (I hope you wrote a post about this! It's a point that needs covering.)

We use the tools similarly, and it makes me wonder about that generation gap.

Also, job market for English majors. BWAHAHAHAHA

I was not only warned, I was threatened, by my father. I'd live in a box under a bridge.

I figured I'd find a way and I have.

I thought at the time that there were things more important than money---and I guess I still do---but I am occasionally frustrated that my calling happens to be a poverty-stricken one while others happily tromp through big fat paychecks in theirs. LOL

Mary G said...

I am so far out of the networking world that I need a telescope. And there I am on Facebook. Facebook fascinates me because of the dynamics of the thing, how people's entries evolve, etc. I assume Twitter is not so different. The Facebookeers I know reflect their real life personalities pretty well; but they are mostly mature people. I think the kids try out a lot of different persona, maybe safer than doing it in person.
Darn this is good. I will have to reread several times and think a lot. Thanks, you.
BTW, love the bow you put on the tail of the Latin tag. Funny lady!

realitytesting said...

My purposes for using social media tools are somewhat different, and so my perspective is as well...what a fabulous topic, Julie. I wrote for miles. Hope it's worth reading now that I'm done. Thanks!

wheelsonthebus said...

I was totally psyched for this week's topic, although I knew I would not be able to contribute because of how little I know.

I have found some of what you write about in blogging. There are a lot of people who just cursory read a post to throw up a comment because they want me to read their blogs in return. It took me a long time to realize they were doing this because I am trusting. I did not realize the gradations of friendship here. If I wanted to build stats, I would continue to visit those blogs, but I have come to realize that stats are just numbers and what I need are people who engage with what I am saying and with whom I can engage in return.

Like, you know, you.


liv said...

JP, my love, (i just liked the way that sounded, btw) i started doing twitter for a dumbass reason: to get messages to someone who was lurking on my blog who i didn't like. and then i quit for a while because i didn't like the idea of such an instantly gratifying emotional spew being available to me. it occurred to me that not everyone needed to know my shiznit. and then, i rejoined because i thought, "who the hell cares? this is my life! i can write what i want!" and now i use it mainly to send covert messages to people to include but not limited to: the man i sleep with from time to time, my close friends, and the rest of yous who wonder what in tarnation i'm talking about. it's all very juvenile, really.

thank you for letting me explain exactly how much like a 13 year old girl i am.

ttfn, your pal, liv

le35 said...

I liked your post on this, and I think that people do use other people in the socal media. However, I don't think that there's anything wrong with using a blog to advertise. I just think that there's something wrong with manipulation regardless of how you manipulate. People manipulate just fine face to face, too. I think that there's a line between advertising and manipulation. An advertisement is a suggestion. A manipulation is when you try to force someone to buy it by making them feel guilty or such. Anyway, I feel that there are some ethical guidelines to follow on this subject, but that's what my entry is about. Thanks Julie for hosting this discussion.

Andrea said...

I'm not quite so sanguine about the maturity level of adults, sadly. I know a woman who uses her blogroll the way teenagers use facebook friends lists--hundreds of blogs she never reads, including blogs by people she doesn't like, has fallen out with and never speaks to. We're not immune just because of our age.

I know people that way my age on facebook too. Massive friends lists that include people I know for a fact they never talk to/hate. Schoolgirl-type playground antics including ganging up on someone who is no longer a welcome part of a group. Friendly public communications with personal attacks on the private channels. You'd think we were all nine. (Why is it I always end up finding out about these things?)

TwoSquareMeals said...

Excellent post! I think you hit on everything that I find troubling about online social networking. The biggest problem for me was that I hate popularity contests and I am not about to spend all of my time giving and collecting fake gifts. Send me some real chocolate in the mail, and I'll be your friend!

Oh, and I love the part about communicating with engineers, perhaps because my father-in-law and husband are engineers. Though I will give my husband credit for being about to use the English language very well and explain his complicated work to just about anyone.

Have you ever read anything by Fred Brooks? He as one of the founders of Computer Science and has a lot to say about technology for technology's sake as opposed to a tool for other disciplines. I'll send you a link to a speech he made of that sort if I can find it.

ewe are here said...

Blogging is as close to social networking as I get. I don't get Twitter, MySpace, Facebook... just don't get them at all.

And I'd have stormed out, too, had someone invited me out just to get a leg up.... infuriating.

Robert said...

I really enjoyed your post, and I want to give a more in depth response, but I decided to write for the Hump Day instead. Maybe I'll manage both some time tonight, but then my post speaks to a lot of my thoughts on why that may or may not be acceptable.

a. beaverhausen said...

This is a lot to chew over. If I didn't have such a wicked headache I might do a better job of working my way through it. I'm coming back tomorrow.

Blogversary said...

I am really enjoying your Wed pieces. Maybe I will start writing a piece to add to your linky thing.

I find the social aspect of all the media you metioned fascinating. I am often in awe in regards to how our lives have changed with technology. And it is amazing to see how friendships with people I have known since before we all started emailing etc have changed. And, how our interactions through technology add a new level to our friendship.

Blogversary said...

Oh, and I think it would be a challenge but interesting to write a book on the psychology of social media.

Yolanda said...

Oh boy. This topic spoke to me way more han I expected it would. I think I may find myself waxing philosophic about social media in some more upcoming posts. I'm late to the party, but I can't wait to blog hop to the others and see what others had to say. The what/why/should of social media brings up much food for thought. Thanks to you and Two Square Meals for the prompt.

Robert said...

I think some friendships that would die a "natural" death (losing touch, forgetting to call, whatever) persist because of social media, and that may or may not be healthy. And it may be that our focus on certain media take away from our relationships that should be maintained. Just a thought.

Scifi Dad, I know where you're coming from. In the early 90's, the geeks were doing most of the "chatting" and few non-tech types had much (if any) interaction with the Internet. I was one of the geeks using it to chat, but I think it was not a good thing for me to do at the time. It did help me learn to type fast, thankfully.

People can very definitely be like high school in social media. If I comment on a blog where my comments do not agree, very often those comments are met with derision and ridicule, sometimes open hostility. Sometimes even a misunderstanding can draw such ire. I remember my first lesson in online chatting. I wrote what I was thinking in my mind to say, and the person talking to me thought I was being mean because I didn't have any smileys on the end of a joke. There are certainly idiosyncracies of chatting that try to liken it to real conversation, but the two are still different.

To this day, I have trouble reading words in all caps and not think someone is YELLING AT ME.

Family Adventure said...

Julie, I desperately want to sit down with you and a nice big pot of tea. Your posts almost always teach me something...either about the world or about myself. Like Aliki says, you are on such a roll, my friend. It's amazing to watch/read. This particular post now has me thinking about stuff I hadn't even considered before...much too much to start hog your commenting space on, though...it almost requires a post of its own. Hmmm....


Gwen said...

See, I don't have time for the rest of the social media because just keeping up with e-mail and blogging and actual daily life is all I kind of handle. Maybe I need a better phone. Yes, that's it. I need to consume something.

Lawyer Mama said...

This is such a meaty topic. I don't feel comfortable with social media as a business tool. Perhaps because I consider it a relationship builder and business relationships always seem to involve some sort of manipulation or power construct.

Christine said...

um, what emily from wheelsonsthebus said.


Running on empty

bipolarlawyercook said...

Lots to think about, but many of the reasons I've put off twitter and other sites are captured here.

slouching mom said...


and i must admit -- i don't get twitter. AT ALL.