With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

I routinely make myself unpopular by railing against the view that we don’t need Social Media (SM) policies. I have thought about it a lot recently, it strikes me that it is the wrong question. As usual, I was looking the wrong way.

A better question might be, how do we ensure that we use the great power of SM responsibly?

We face a moral and ethical challenge of the type we always face when new and powerful information technologies emerge. The printed word caused a bit of a stink in its day. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Propaganda_during_the_Reformation

We must continue to release the great potential of SM to connect communities and enable, for example, mass collaboration. It is breathtakingly effective and incredibly enjoyable.

We must also learn when and how we might cause damage to the well being, reputations and lives of others. I will spare you the endless list of recent ruin. Each of the many recent examples demonstrates that people and corporations cannot yet apply conscious good judgement, let alone instinctive common sense.

The answer will be complicated and will take time, this stuff is still new. Sorting it all out will be worth it.

If we do need corporate policies then they are at best only a part of the answer. We must have a robust debate about how to use SM, about what is right and what is wrong. We will have to evolve things painfully from there. Most will embed itself in our culture, but the basics will get put into laws, regulations and then end up in some policies to protect the innocent and ensure accountability.

The extent to which we employ each approach will vary from country to country and industry to industry. It is not a choice between any one of these. All will come into play. Each is necessary. None are sufficient.

I’d love to know what you think about both sides of this argument.


22 thoughts on “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

  1. Tony there’s plenty of good folk against anything remotely like a Social Media policy. The anti-SoMe-policy brigade often rightly say that social human interaction doesn’t need legislation as such… yet we all follow conventions based on our upbringing, culture, expectations, etc.

    The more I see, use & experience Social Media, the more I think we need Social Media policies. But let me be clear… for me any great policy is not one that says how we must behave (traditional) but to says this is how we do behave (ethical). When do we ever ask ourselves… How do you behave? Where do you set your own personal expectations? What can people expect from you? In my experience, what we all seem to fail to do with SoMe is to say how we’re going to use it…

    Much of the norm is intended to be experiential or we set some very loose expectations in our Twitter profile. However, we tend to be pretty weak at setting expectations… increasingly it seems very easy to misunderstand others intent… maybe that’s because we don’t show enough of our intent?

    I think this is the advantage of stating our own social media policy in a “social contract”. To say this is how I want to use SoMe, these are my ethics, this is how I intend to behave, this is what you can expect from me. This is how I want to behave – if ever I fail let me know.

    I wonder if those who create damage & havoc on social media would behave more consciously & differently if they stated their accountability in a “social contract”…

    Personally, I’ve had a blog commenting policy for some time now and have been pondering the same with Twitter. Maybe akin to a manifesto… I think I’ll combine both into my “Social Policy” for the start of the New Year. Thanks for the prompt!

    • David

      Thanks. I too have a set of things I do and don’t do on SM.

      Little things like

      If I am having a 1:1 conversation, I will pick or switch to a 1:1 channel. That way I avoid embarrassing people by causing them to inadvertently eavesdrop.

      I try (and fail!) to avoid, “Look at me!” posts. I prefer “how are you?” as an opener.

      I try to enjoy what I am doing, where I am and most importantly, who I am with. I may post something interesting, funny or beautiful afterwards. While I am with you I will respect you.

      The above rule applies a little less when I am alone. Them your virtual presence may be what I want. Even so, maybe I should respect the landscape or what ever it is I am immersed in.

      I fail on all these from time to time.

      I posted elsewhere recently that you don’t hear, “I AM ON THE TRAIN!!”, so much these days. Perhaps the comedian who made that line famous helped but I think we gradually concluded that that behaviour was crass and stopped braying on trains so much.

      This is going to take a while…It is not simple.

      More on other comments in a moment but thanks for joining the debate.


  2. Are we discussing corporate policy or personal ethics, or both?

    At a corporate level, it seems to me to be good practice to have some high-level guidelines. These should cover basic principles such as “don’t rubbish your employer in public”, “don’t spend too much of your working time on non-work activities”. The technology of social media develops so fast that specific rules are likely to be outdated as far as soon as they are published, so keep it at the level of guiding principles.

    At a personal level, I like David’s idea of a manifesto. Perhaps there is an opportunity for an “open source” public manifesto that we could choose to sign up to, or write your own. However, that isn’t going to solve the problem of deliberate trouble-makers, who wouldn’t feel bound by any such code-of-practice.

    (By the way, I’m now using my new identity: Q2 Associates Ltd)

    • Hi

      This and Andrew’s (aka Friday Food) put this in sharp relief. This isn’t about our daily lives OR our corporate lives it is about both.

      Some of the debate assumes we have choices that are actually false choices.

      I am a fully paid up member of the culture eats process for breakfast then moves on to strategy for lunch brigade. However culture is only a foundation. Necessary and powerful but not sufficient.

      National culture (possibly international) will play a part.

      Then some rather dull evolution to laws and regulations.

      Corporate cultures will evolve to embed these and will be powerful and effective.

      I have no doubt that some policy will result.

      I suspect that the implementation of Leveson will result in newspapers developing some SM policies. Especially after some recent very distressing mistakes.

      Thanks for such a comprehensive comment.

      Hope he new venture is going well also!



  3. In order to do something competently we need some confidence. In us and the right outcome as a result if what we do. You’ve summed it up here really nicely and the “Uncle Ben” quote from Spider-Man is spot on. I’d like to see ALL policies buily as the result of true collaborative thinking and joint work and not inflicted upon people. So Social is the way to do that yet some try and put such covenants around social (media) use that it creates the wrong “vibe”. Inform. Skill. Liberate. The responsibility of us all to be professional, human and enlightening should form the thrust of corporate/people comms/engagement IMHO. Good words here, thank you.

    • Perry

      Thanks for such a considered response. This topic plainly gets people thinking. It also appears to polarise people. In turn that to make me think the answer won’t be simple.

      If there is an answer, then what’s the question. I don’t think it’s “should we have an SM policy?”.

      Whatever we do will evolve. Also, this isn’t just a corporate question but one that relates to our everyday lives. The spectrum of our response will transcend both domains.

      I am not at all religious but suspect that we could trace this debate back to the Ten Commandments. Simple stuff, that we mostly sign up.

      Thanks for commenting.


      PS I think Uncle Ben borrowed the term from FDR 🙂

  4. I think the biggest issue here is that we’re delineating between social media in the workplace and social media outside the workplace. The old practices of home and work are, in many industries, getting so blurred that I’m not sure what such a policy would achieve. Time was when anything that is facilitated by the internet would only be possible using “work” internet which was often heavily filtered or locked down so the likelihood of actually engaging in anything social was drastically reduced. Now we all turn up to work with a multitude of devices that are permanently connected so people update their Facebook status, Tweet, monitor LinkedIn, and upload to Flickr without any regard to the fact they’re at work. And here’s the biggest change: most of the above behaviour is increasingly for 100% legitimate work reasons.

    Platforms have sprung up that try and replicate the behaviours of traditionally out-of-work social networking sites but in a so-called ‘corporate’ environment to attempt to appease the corporate lock-down police that everything is being nicely monitored and controlled. Thing is, they neglect the fact that a large part of social networking for business reasons takes place outside of those platforms. Frankly, they’ve lost the battle and they don’t like it one bit. I remember sitting in a forum with a load of compliance officers a year or so ago who were all trying to get their heads around how to deal with social media. One guy said his financial advisors in the field used social media (Facebook and LinkedIn primarily) for prospecting for leads and were very successful at it. Thing is, corporate policy had both websites blocked when in the office. So, do you a) accept that you’re missing out on a rich vein of potential business opportunity and keep the lock-down policy happy, or b) relax controls and just accept that gone are the days when all the data upon which your business relies could be nicely tied up in a bow and shoved in a datacentre somewhere that you can physically touch.

    Social media, IMHO, is a (not so) new social norm. It’s how a large proportion of the population interact, engage and exist. Trying to drive a big corporate wedge through the middle of it is, at best, pointless and at worst going to leave your business back in 1998.

  5. Grrrrr! 🙂

    I thought Uncle Ben’s motto was ‘Perfect Every Time’, I’m talking of course of that wonderful purveyor of rice. If only this lovely piece of marketing were true beyond rice and into work and beyond eh?

    To your point around questions – I think something more interesting could be ‘What do we want to achieve and how can we use some of these tools to help us with that?’

    I’ve seen examples of policy rewritten, policy implemented, policy not required, full access to social tools and restrictions from a total (save my smartphone loo break) lock-down, to a partial one. And without grappling with the question around what we want to achieve, my experience shows me none of the other stuff really matters.

    Personally I feel saddened that people feel a need to throw a policy up around a conversational world, and I also can’t deny that there are people who for a bunch of reasons choose to act irresponsibly. I am less convinced that a new policy will have much affect on them, and don’t we already have enough policy in our work and in our lives without adding more?

    I like aspects of your do and don’t do list, they aren’t policy though….are they?

    Look what you’ve done……my head hurts!

    • Hi

      Thanks for pitching in. This plainly gets us both a bit aerated 🙂

      If there is one thing I think we are agreed on its that the important bit is the outcomes. I often refer to that as “what not how”.

      The fixation with policy bemuses me. It’s exactly what I was trying to get away from. I can see both sides, but its part of the “how” and it will vary. I do care a bit, but not as much as I do about the “what”.

      If your question allows for the avoidance of damaging and upsetting outcomes as well as all the upside then let’s use your question. A question that only addresses the positive isn’t good enough for me though.

      This post was finally triggered by an incident last week in which, yet again, news organisations (corporations) grossly misused SM in a way that shocked and upset me.

      The upsides are wonderful, but some of the downsides are increasingly frequent and upsetting.

      As to my little list, that’s taken from a sad little grid I wrote last year 🙂 It outlines how and when I should use various comms channels. Part of the conscious and difficult learning process I continue to go through.

      How about a call or a beer to see if we can agree a question then a joint blog ? I am quite happy not to use the P word, to address “what” and leave the “how” to others.

      Happy Christmas 🙂


  6. There is another way to look at Policy for Social Media. Policy is not just about lockdown and rules and restriction but is also about guidelines and showing the way. For many of us in the corporate world Social Media is still pretty new. We may have dabbled a bit on Facebook but suddenly the divide between work and home, LinkedIn and Facebook and the many other channels, is less clear. Some of us need a bit of help so that we can comfortably navigate this new world. Clear policies can help with this. I see it as a bit like having a dress code on an invitation. Some people will feel constrained by that dress code, others will seek out that dress code and feel much more comfortable knowing that they are wearing the right thing. It may even encourage some people to use Social Media responsibly. I’m in the dress code camp :-).

    • Diane

      Thanks for this. I know you are maxed at the moment.

      Last year I developed a grid to help my teenaged daughter use various comms channels a little more wisely (ahem:). When we had done, I realised I might do well to eat my own dog food!

      It emphasised the benefits and the risks, mostly to the feelings of others and ones reputation as well as what works best when.

      Some fragments are in the chain above.

      However, my main concern is that we maximise the joy while minimising the misery.

      If I achieve nothing else through this post it’ll be to raise awareness of both sides of the issue.

      Happy Christmas,


    • I’ve written a few posts about dress code…. 😉 don’t worry – we won’t go there today. Have a great Christmas and I hope Santa is suitably attired for his visit.

  7. A long but utterly brilliant TED Talk by Sherry Turkle. It begs some great questions through some challenging statements:

    Technology appeals to us where we are most vulnerable.
    We’re lonely but afraid of intimacy.
    The illusions of companionship without the demands of friendship.
    Being alone feels like a problem that needs to be solved.
    If we don’t teach our children to be alone, they will only know how to be lonely.

    Among many others challenging gems that address the good and the bad.

  8. Pingback: Best of the HR blogs December 2012: The HR bloggers’ choice! | XpertHR - Employment Intelligence

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