Conversation and Context in Social Media (Cautionary Tales)

On email lists, if someone listens but never or seldom talks this is called lurking. If you do this you would be called a lurker. Any variations of the word “lurk” tend to carry unpleasant connotations, with the Merriam-Webster definition mentioning “evil purpose” and “furtive.” The reverse is equally unpleasant. If you talk and never listen or dialog, especially if you send out information without allowing people the opportunity to opt-in or opt-out from your messages, you might be accused of spamming. Now, a simple RSS feed or Twitter stream with your information is an opt-in mechanism so don’t worry too much, but that also isn’t terribly engaging. Other common terms for uncivil behavior in online venues include griefing, trolls, cyberbullies and sockpuppets.

Most of these are pretty obvious no-nos for anyone, no matter why you are using social media, except … well, sometimes the invisible line between what is ok and what isn’t can be one of those paths lined with good intentions that leads to unfortunate places. Perhaps a couple of examples?

Scenario 1:
There is no Wikipedia page on the topic of your organization. Your bosses think this is an oversight, and assign a small team to create and monitor an example. This makes a lot of sense because there is a high-profile lawsuit or advertising campaign about to begin. Everyone involved is very careful to stick to verifiable facts and try not to present information with bias, but the page is closely monitored and frequently updated, with inaccurate or misleading edits disappearing quickly, often at the hands of the local team.

Scenario 2:
There is a Wikipedia page on the topic of your organization, and your organization is high-profile with almost daily news articles or press releases. Much of the news is controversial, and the Wikipedia page reflects not only the controversies but a certain amount of bias. At least that is what you believe, and what your organization believes. You aren’t the only one aware of the problem, and a number of people from your organization create Wikipedia accounts so you can correct the entry to more closely reflect the image of the organization as seen by the people who are part of it.

These two scenarios sound almost the same, don’t they? You would think that either they would both be fine to do, or both would be problems. The differences are pretty subtle, in any case, and it would be really easy to slip over the line from telling your story factually to influencing the story that is being told. It would be very easy to do so with the very best of intentions and honestly seeking the best welfare for your organization.

Here is the link for the Wikipedia page an example of a web page that fits Scenario 1.

Wikipedia: University of Michigan Library:

Here is the Wikipedia page for Scenario 2, along with only one of the many news stories about the controversy attached to the internal control of the editing process that became suspect.

Wikipedia: Church of Scientology:

Metz, Cade. Wikipedia bans Church of Scientology. The Register May 29, 2009.

There has been so much written on the controversy that I won’t discuss it here, but will leave you to explore it on your own. The basic questions seem to be the perception of bias in the edits, an unwillingness to have different points of view represented, and a lack of trust that the editing process was being managed fairly and according to the posted guidelines for Wikipedia. It is very easy for people who love where they work or who care passionately about it to find themselves protecting their employer or church or profession via social media during times of controversy. The trick is that if you pretend to be unaffiliated or are perceived as pretending to be something you are not, this can easily come back to bite you and your cause. It is really easy to slip over the line from being a regular folk saying what you think to being a sockpuppet or audience shill. Then when people do find out who you are, the discussion can get very ugly or hurtful. At the least, it raises a question of whether you or your institution or cause are trustworthy. Usually that is the opposite of what you want to have happen.

Scenario 3:
I wrote last week about a company that responded brilliantly to an opportunity provided through a competitor’s misstep. There has been a lot of attention lately being given to how a music company responded to the use of their music in a popular Youtube. The use of the music was technically illegal, and probably would never have even been noticed if this home video had been watched by a handful of friends the way most home videos are. Instead, this video hit the big time, going viral, with over 20 million views in less than a month after it was posted. The video is the now famous J & K Wedding Entrance Dance video. The music company would have had the legal right to close down the video or penalize the authors of the video for using the music without permission. Instead they chose to take advantage of the free advertising and have boosted sales to an amazing level.

Scenario 4:
I watched this one while it was happening, and it was quite a wild ride. It is tempting to post screenshots from the time, but since others have already done so, I will restrain myself and refer you to them. This is a cautionary tale, drastically abbreviated.

The short-short version of this is that a librarian noticed some inconsistencies on a new clinical information website, and mentioned them in a blogpost. The company in question had a multiply-authored twitter account. One of the folk on that twitter account threatened legal action against the author of the blog instead of responding to the concerns mentioned. Some of the concerns included misrepresenting endorsement of the site while others included using copyrighted images without permission. Eventually, the company corrected some of these, but not all, and removed most of the errors mentioned from their account.

By initially responding to a courteous but concerned blogpost in a heavy-handed manner without researching the questions, the result was to build a strong and protective community around the blogpost author and to drastically undermine the credibility of the company. Basically, the company made themselves appear to be bullies. When the later response served to basically defend their earlier threats, they dug themselves in deeper. Not only were they bullies, but they defended their right to be bullies.

The company made things look even worse by changing the name of the twitter account several times, making it more difficult for people tracking the breaking story to follow events. This is pretty common behavior among trolls, griefers and sockpuppets. The end result is that it looks like you are either lying to cover something up or that you are playing games with people, neither of which wins you trust in social media environments. I suspect that this was part of their damage control efforts, but again it backfired terribly.

Because of the frequent account name changes, people aware of the series of events became pretty aggressive about watching the company closely, tracking each account change and sharing it among themselves. This is in addition to mobilizing people who might have gladly supported the project or donated images into placing public requests to have their fictitious endorsements retracted and images removed. In fact, as of this evening, a search for the name of the company (Clinical Reader) has negative blogposts for 7 of the top 10 results, and the company’s own website is ranked as the 3rd link.

Google Search for Clinical Reader - a Cautionary Tale

Since the original boondoggle, it has become a bit of a entertainment for librarians to go to the company’s site and hunt for misused images or content. The company has been incredibly successful in attracting attention and commentary, but not of a positive sort. At this point, it may be very difficult for them to reinvent themselves or repair the damage.

Here is a simply brilliant pair of blogposts that track the series of social media mishaps.

On the Pitfalls of Social Media: The Case of Clinical Reader. Disruptive Library Technology Jester July 19th, 2009.

On the Pitfalls of Social Media: Learning from Clinical Reader. Disruptive Library Technology Jester July 19th, 2009.

A few other (very selective) posts about this sad story. Each links to several more, for those who are really curious.

Clinical Reader: Starry ethics fail. Eagle Dawg Blog July 13, 2009.

Clinical Reader, a Fancy New Aggregator – But All is not Gold that Glitters. Laika’s MedLibLog August 3, 2009.

The basic message behind all these scenarios is that it is important to be clear about how you will handle concerns before they arise, and to be aware in your communication plan of these fairly common unsavory roles in online communication specifically so that you can avoid taking steps that inadvertently cast you as a villain rather than a good guy.

2 responses to “Conversation and Context in Social Media (Cautionary Tales)

  1. Pingback: MEDLIB’s ROUND 1.6 « Laika’s MedLibLog

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