Monday, September 07, 2015

What defines you on social media?

While travelling to and from the GovHack international awards red carpet event (which was great BTW), I've been reading 'So you've been publicly shamed', the latest book by Jon Ronson (the author of The men who stare at goats), and was reflecting on some of the experiences he talks about.

A common theme throughout the book is how easy it can be for a single comment or photo to define a person on social media and become their personal brand - whether they wish it to or not.

In many instances the defining tweet or image is created in a moment of passion, humour or poor judgement - a moment of weakness or lack of clarity where a poorly worded joke or action becomes misinterpreted and spreads widely across the Internet.

Avoiding online media is no defense against the potential for an individual to be incorrectly defined. Ronson gives an example of an individual whose moment of infamy has affected, to varying extents, over 60 people who share the same name.

Even for individuals who choose not to have their own social accounts, it can only require someone to quote their comment (accurately or not) or sharing an image or video of their actions online to create a storm of concern.

So if an absence from social media is ineffective and all of us who are online are prone to moments where our judgement and anticipation is not perfect, what is the appropriate way to minimise the risk of mislabeling or public shaming?

One of the approaches explored by Ronson involved ensuring that an individual is honestly represented online, not by a single misinterpreted comment, but by the sum of their actions, views and experience.

When there's only a few search results for an individual's name they can easily be defined in Google, and hence online, as being a single thing - be it accurate or not. Even worse, if someone is effectively invisible online they may find themselves defined by someone else who shares their name.

When an individual has a history on the Internet, with an honest record of their thoughts and actions and are continuing to update this through posts, tweets, articles and images, they are far less likely to find themselves defined (or misdefined) by a single perceived mistake.

While a sarcastic comment or badly timed photo may still reach further than normal engagement would, it is far harder for strangers to define an individual as just one thing online.

In my view this principle applies as strongly for organisations as it does for individuals. 

We've seen many social media disasters over the years spurred by a poorly timed or worded comment. Where the organisation or individual 'shuts down' ('removing the oxygen' in PR speak) or changes their behaviour ('damage control') it grant the mistake greater credibility and can lead to far greater attention and negative.

Acknowledging the mistake, taking appropriate remedial steps immediately (such as an apology or correction), and then moving forward with normal engagement levels is often the most effective approach to address a single instance of error or community concern.

Also critical is having a rich and deep history of engagement, a 'resume' demonstrating how that organisation has engaged effectively over a significant period of time. This makes it very difficult for detractors to position an organisation as one (negative) thing, or for individuals stumbling on the error to accidentally assume that it represents the true values and approach of the organisation.

On that basis I believe that the best thing that both individuals and organisations can do to mitigate the risk of misunderstandings and public shaming online is to clearly define themselves, and keep defining themselves through ongoing effective online engagement.

Being absent, silent or putting up the barricades when an error is made creates space for others to define you, in ways that are likely inaccurate and almost always do not represent your own values and actions.

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