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Wednesday, February 1, 2012

It's Tough To Write A Good Social Media Policy. Here's Why.

I Am Majid Social Media Campaign
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In the community where I grew up, at the time when I grew up, there was no Internet.

If you were bored on the weekend you went outside to ride bikes. You listened to bad music (I mean late '70s...we are talking really bad. Serious.) You went to the mall and basically did nothing. You watched TV on those big old floor models with lots of wood.

In my case, you took out fifty books from the library at a time. (Refer to the '70s and lack of any appealing popular culture whatsoever...a situation that fortunately was alleviated with the onset of MTV, Madonna, and John Hughes movies.)

If you wanted to talk about things you picked up the phone and called your friends. Or passed notes in class, or went to youth group events, or sleepovers. But the concept of a "text message" or a "wall posting" would have seemed completely from outer space.

Even those phones we used - oh my. I remember the first cordless models. They were huge and they had those weird plastic antennas. And we used them and thought we were cool. Major sigh.

Somehow we went from the '80s to the '90s - where did all that time go, it was a blur - and fast forward into the realm of social media. Do you remember those printers with the plastic things sticking out on the side and you had to fit the paper to them? What was that, dot-matrix? And the fact that everything was on mainframe, and then those "function" keys? It's amazing we got anything done.

I'm trying to remember the first time I even heard the words "social media." I'm sure it was not before 2004 or 2005 at the earliest. For me, just the fact that we had e-mail and the Internet was revolutionary. That I didn't have to use a physical card catalogue for every piece of research I did? What?

Point being that I think pretty fast. And even for someone like me, social media was f-r-e-a-k-i-n-g scary. Like - what is a blog? I can write something and everyone can see it? And what the heck is a Twitter? Soon enough it all came rushing at me, Facebook and LinkedIn and YouTube and on and on and on.

I tried to learn these tools without actually getting an account for them. It's true. I was really scared. I could not imagine the incredible risk I would be taking by going out there and actually...well I didn't know what I would be doing. But the concept of me writing and other people reading without any mediator was frightening as could be.

Especially Facebook. There was something about the philosophy of that company, the lack of belief in privacy almost, that really unnerved me. I found it all hard to fathom and I dropped in and out several times before it stuck and became "no big deal."

By using social media, I learned how to use it. By watching others use it, I learned. By discussing and debating as we used it, I developed a frame of reference for making judgments.

Social media is not like any other communication tool we have ever had in history. The rules are totally different. The expectations of the audience are completely unique. There really is no precedent for it. And there is no way to understand the experience or to make judgments about it until you are actually there, and swimming.

I'll give you just one example, because by social media standards I have gone on too long:
  • In the real world when you write a letter to the editor and you sign the name of your company, there is some implied connection between yourself as the writer and the organization for which you work. Including the name is therefore socially understood to be inappropriate (generally) if you're writing in a personal capacity.
  • In the social media world when you write, it is suspicious if you try to "hide" where you work. Because the suspicion is that you are "astroturfing" - doing something propagandistic on behalf of your company. In the blogosphere the only real rule is transparency, as far as you can take it legitimately. So you need a disclaimer. But if you write something that violates your company policy, you can forget thinking that the disclaimer will fully protect you. So it is truly, truly complicated.
There is other stuff too but I think you get the gist of it. Social media is not something you can apprehend from a distance. It's like learning to do surgery: You've got to stick your hand in the kishkes (Yiddish for innards) and "get it" by doing. When you actually see that beating heart only inches from our face, it's a heck of a lot different than reading about it in a textbook.

Which explains why social media policy is really very hard to write well. Even for those who "get it," social media is frightening. It upsets the apple cart:
  • How do you "regulate" a conversation that's about you, that takes place right in front of you, that you do not control, that you may not understand, and that you really don't like? 
  • How do you decide what is and isn't OK, really, when in fact the very thing that scares and upsets you the most is the thing that will give you the most credibility with your audience? 
  • Finally, how do you navigate the gray areas that you inevitably run into? Headfirst and risk an ugly confrontation that may have been unnecessary? Or ignore it and fail to prevent an ugly disaster?
I wish I could say that I have all the answers - I don't - although I've read a lot and I continue to try to learn. And I wish it were as simple as the words "trust your judgment" - unfortunately people aren't always good at knowing what to do, and sometimes they don't even know what it is that they don't know.

What I do know is that whatever we're afraid of is real, and scary. But not half as scary as if we let fear overtake us, and prevent those important, productive, problem-solving conversations that we need from taking place.

Have a good evening everyone, and good luck!

____

As always, all opinions are my own. Originally posted to my blog, www.dannielleblumenthal.com.
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