A Question Concerning the Ethics of Social Media Presence

Facebook Business Solutions
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Question: If, as CEO of a company, you personally and passionately oppose Facebook’s Privacy policies and methods, would you withhold having any presence on the site, regardless of what it may cost you?

I’m an advocate for intelligent adoption of emerging technologies and media for individuals, non-profits and businesses. I believe they can be useful, pliant and remarkable tools as part of larger internal and external strategies. But I also believe that the uses of these media need to be integrated in accordance with the specific needs and resources of an enterprise within the larger contexts of what it means to do business.

But one matter is often overlooked, which is what I raised in the question above. What if you believe that a particular medium is run by a company who – in your eyes – has questionable or no ethical standards? Would you shrug off the matter and ultimately decide that you need to reach your customers on Facebook or Twitter or on any other medium which you don’t own and have no say in?

After all, when you set up a Facebook Page, you’re effectively entering a business relationship with Facebook – even if you don’t run ads or otherwise cut a check. Just as any smart and ethical executive would question entering a partnership with an un-trustworthy vendor, shouldn’t executives similarly consider the trustworthiness of the companies who run media sites?

I won’t answer the question here. But I would suggest, that executive leaders (and agencies) fully understand not only the properties of the media companies they use but also the ethical values and practices those companies employ.

We are living in a time when leaders must possess a minimal understanding and proficiency of emerging media. That entails not only a technical understanding of them but also an ethical wisdom and awareness.

Given Facebook’s changing policies with respect to Privacy, Healthcare executives must especially be pondering this question. As my friend Faisal Qureshi aptly stated:

@PhilBaumann if you're a Healthcare CEO you need to be thinking long and hard about using #fb in your marketing mix. #hcsm

@PhilBaumann if you're a Healthcare CEO you need to be thinking long and hard about using #fb in your marketing mix. #hcsm

Companies, and the agencies that advise them, must never forget the fundamental dividing difference between traditional media (print, radio, TV) and emerging media (Twitter, Facebook, Blogs, Forums): the former are hardware while the later are software. Hardware is relatively static and straightforward. Software, on the other hand, is pliant, elusive and unpredictable. Facebook isn’t a as much a medium as it is software. Thus the ethical thinking on media like Facebook, must take this key difference in mind.

Of all of the technologies which  our species has brought forth into the world, perhaps it’s the Question Mark which is our crowning achievement. And with that, I repeat my question to you:

If, as CEO of a company, you personally and passionately oppose Facebook’s Privacy policies and methods, would you withhold having any presence on the site, regardless of what it may cost you?

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  1. Yes – the decision to be present or not on a social network is comparable the decision with respect to a particluar geographic location.

    I don’t know if most businesses would be as extreme to not have any Facebook presence, but considering the question probably should at least be involved in decision-making processes.

    Of course, the Web affords many opportunities for building a presence – and resourceful businesses could in fact create their own real estates in which to engage with customers.

    Recently, many marketers have been touting that businesses “must” be on Facebook. But I don’t agree. Facebook isn’t a media company, like CBS – you can’t really plan or program what kind of content will be there in six months or even tomorrow.

    On a side note, I really want to see real numbers about success rates on Facebook. Not the numbers Facebook talks about – I’m mean real numbers. Something tells me that Facebook doesn’t provide ROI for the bulk of its customers (eg advertisers). But it’s just a hunch.

  2. In a way, this is akin to asking a company if they’ll set up business in a city, state or country with policies that they oppose. Will you do business in China, Google? Will you open an office or a store in Arizona? There are loyal and honorable customers in these places, and you may choose to walk away from those customers based on local laws, policies, and practices. Is Facebook the China of the 10’s or the South Africa of the 70’s?

    A key difference is that it is easier for your customer and get up and leave Facebook than to pack up and move from China. But as Facebook gets to be more a part of people’s infrastructure, the move becomes more difficult. And as a company, if your absence from Facebook becomes more equatable to your absence from the Internet, your choices become more difficult.

    This is reflected in Facebook’s recent moves: they are striving to remain a walled garden that is increasingly part of the persistent infrastructure.

  3. Phil:

    Thanks for this post. I’ve been thinking about some of the same issues. However I think that in addition to ethics, people should be also thinking about the issues of control, experience and portability. There’s not enough space here to get into all of these topics (and by control I don’t mean controlling the message.). However, I will say this: when you get into bed with a third-party to extend your ‘persona’ but you don’t have control over how information will be presented, delivered and stored; limited say in how people will experience your message (think inaccurate captions in Facebook); and the danger of losing hard-earned user generated data (think about Ning) you’ve got to go into things with your eyes wide open.

    With regard to the software vs. hardware issue, you might want to take a look at a book called the Future of the Internet and How to Stop It. The author talks about the generative Web vs the Appliance Web. What we are seeing with the Web and Facebook is the attempt to build the appliance-driven Web where the experience is managed and less messy. In addition customer data is commoditized and leveraged for gain without customer knowledge or consent.

    Anyway, great post. I’ll be focusing on this issue in a future blog post, but wanted to share my preliminary thoughts with you. Nice work.

    BTW, you get a link to the book I mentioned and more info on the future Web here: http://pbeye.info/3Js.

  4. Hi, Neil. Yes: I will roll out a second part. I’ll also have to build on the hardware/software difference because I think this is an overlooked piece.

    We’ll have to see if FB endures. Zuckerberg – as Jason Calacanis claims – may have overplayed his cards. We shall see.

  5. Thank you for raising a really important topic. At the end of the day won’t people just walk if they feel too exposed on fb? Won’t bad ethical practice on a social media platform reduce trust and credibility and make it less attractive to advertisers? Maybe I am being too naive, maybe fb is so pre-eminent that is gone beyond something that people can walk away from it? I would also appreciate a part 2 on this post to understand more.

  6. The same due diligence should apply as does traditional media with the use of a “no buy” list. If a company is truthful to the brand it wants to build, it will be truthful to the values it believes in. Only after this evaluation is complete should media platforms be selected.

  7. Phil, thanks for sharing my tweet in your post.

    I’ve never seen traditional media and social media described as “hardware while the later are software”. Very poignant.

    This will take CEOs, VP of Marketing types, and especially SM consultants, when assembling budgets and strategy, time to wrap their heads around. That alone needs an expanded part 2 of this post.

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