This post covers some issues and challenges of social media use that can negatively impact on businesses – individual vulnerability to online harm, digital literacies and the intertwined issues of privacy and trust. These risks can be mitigated with massive but necessary cultural shifts within traditional business structures.
I have 750 words to discuss these topics. My notes totalled 9 pages. My first two post drafts topped out at over 1800 words. Each. Good luck reader.
We need a better and more self-aware understanding of what constitutes online harm. I know a highly competent surgical nurse who has worked all around the world. She’s an avid user of Facebook as it allows her to keep in contact with her dispersed children and grandchildren. She also shares ‘natural’ cures for cancer, big pharma conspiracy stories and anti-vaccination BS. Did I mention she is a nurse? When she is online, she is not officially representing the hospital she works for, but because she is a nurse people value her opinion. What she says matters. Does she have the right to share these personal opinions? Absolutely. But does this freedom contain potential risk for her employer? Absolutely.
Our news feeds are filled with moral panic over the online habits of teens. Sexting, oversharing, bullying, and social exclusion are all real issues of social harm that typically afflict the young. But older people get into trouble online too. Their issues tend to be more security based – forwarding spam and virus laden emails, installing random toolbars in Internet Explorer, and replying to unsolicited emails from young Asian women who ‘just want to get to know you’. Sometimes the harm is caused from malicious intent (revenge porn, spam and bot-nets) and sometimes it’s due to unconscious incompetence of both parties (children bullying each other, install short-cuts that aren’t exactly malicious but are so badly coded they lead to PC slow-down)
These are all issues involving the digital literacy of the individual. Schools expend a great deal of effort to engage their charges in digital literacies. Who provides that education to older generations already in the workforce? Can your employees spot both intentional and unintentional harm? Are they aware of potential consequences of what they share in social media as private citizens? What level of competence (both digital and social) do you expect from your employees? How do you expect them to get that level of competency and self awareness?
Imagine a private social media account anonymously run by a sports celebrity. It’s purpose is to share anti-immigration posts bordering on hate speech. Would someone have a right to expose this private account because of the public status of the sports star? Now imagine that the context of the anonymous and private celebrity account was asking questions about gender-norms and the transgender experience? Where is the public interest in exposing the privacy of this individual now?
Here we butt up against something I’ve discussed before – the lack of regulation, rules and laws that govern the real-life activity of real people who happen to be communicating online. There is currently a worthy and necessary conversation going on about this very thing. Anonymous accounts are spreading hate and terror across the internet. But if the right to anonymity goes away, how are people who are exposed to greater public scrutiny able to function in society like anyone else?
We expect higher standards from people in positions of power, particularly those who’re deemed to have power over vulnerable groups in society like children. In other words, ‘Society’ expects to have influence over what is considered acceptable behaviour for people who perform public roles like teachers, health professionals, public servants and sportspeople. I certainly expected a higher degree of self awareness and guarded posting from my nurse friend. But do I have a right to? Who would want to be a teacher or a nurse if there was no right to simply be a citizen of the world and participate in online life in a private capacity?
The world envisaged by Minority Report is real.
Browser histories and data are for sale. If I write a best selling book in five years time, how long before past blog posts, tweets and my political affiliations become ‘available’ for anyone to read and judge my future public worthiness on? You don’t even need to be a ‘person of public interest’ for this to affect you. It is possible for general employees to be publicly identified and their online histories to be shared as a matter of ‘public good’ and citizen journalism in the wake of scandal or social media missteps by businesses.
[edit: consider the case of ‘United Airlines Man‘ in the news this week. Not only is this a text book case of how not to do business social media – and let’s face it, if you’re a mean spirited business it’s going to be impossible for you to do social media well – it shows how quickly and how voraciously the media will drag up the past of a private citizen. The mans past criminal convictions have nothing to do with the story. The information is served only to feed trolls and maintain continued titillation and interest in the story for website clicks and advert generation.]
As a business who employs real people as employees, you are now in an unprecedented position. Whereas before, you could write and implement policies for internet and email use and have clear rules and expectations of what constitutes misuse of these company tools – you can’t get away with that for social media. Social media is not a business tool adapted for home use. It’s a private tool for real people ported into corporate use.
You have to trust your employees to make good decisions, and you have to trust them to bring any issues to you for help and guidance, which means they have to trust you too. This is a trust stalemate, an unprecedented relinquishing of control. It is absolutely a risk to your business having employees be active online citizens. But this isn’t a choice businesses have. All employees are someone else customers. They are online. They are on social media. They are doing it well and they are doing it badly. If you think you can control their use with restrictive policies, you must also believe the moon is made of cheese and caffeine free coffee is better than real coffee.
So – if you can’t prevent risk at its source, how can a business mitigate risk from social media?
You make digital literacy your new standard operating procedure. You do this by investing in creating and curating a culture of continuous learning in your organisation, from the top to the bottom. Learning new skills, analysing your cultural bias and the current zeitgeist in the societies you do business in must become your new normal. This requires a huge upending of traditional organisational structures. The best description I’ve seen of this, is in an article critiquing the World Economic Forum’s 10 essential skills for 2020. Here, Stowe Boyd argues that these are actually competencies we should already have by now. By 2020 workers should (among other things):
- Be boundlessly curious (actually wanting to know what works and why, making unsolicited moves to discover new and exciting things).
- Display emergent leadership qualities (the ability to steer things in the right direction without the authority to do so, through social competence.)
- Practice constructive uncertainty and complex ethics (i.e. being self-aware or ‘woke’ to our biases and understanding how they might help or hinder us.
- Eschew specialisation for Deep Generalisation whereby connections and complexities in systems can be identified and analysed. Intersectionality is recognised and understanding actively pursued.
- Be open to design logic, where we can imagine what we want to achieve but also foresee undesirable outcomes from our innovations in order to make better long term decisions.
It all boils down to the overarching issue of the ‘literacy’ of the general public which a business wishes to interact and therefore, with a businesses own staff (staff are people too!). The single biggest mitigation strategy a business can employ is investing in culture change in order to foster a culture of continuous learning coupled, with the freedom to make mistakes due to the robustness of your mistake response strategy. Continuous learning can only be achieved with an investment of time and money in developing these 21st century skills in employees.
I have now spent far too much time here. I’m sure I could’ve made it more succinct, the arguments tighter or more related to specifics from the week’s readings… but I’m tired. The M&Ms have run out and I just can’t to any more. Congratulations on making it this far. As a reward I give you this scene from Black Books, which accurately describes how I feel when trying to turn my notes into something legible for this blog. Enjoy!