Ethical Social Networking

ethics cloudEveryone seems to be into social networking these days.  You read it online everywhere.  Facebook this, Myspace that, Twitter the other….  It seems like everyone enjoys communicating online, and many of us via social sites.  I’ve also been reading a lot lately about the boon that social networking has been to charities and non-profits.  All of those people sharing links and info has resulted in more money heading into the coffers of those who seek to change our world for the better.  While this is all good, I began to wonder about the personal responsibility  and specific actions I could take as an individual to make the world of social networking a more ethical place.

I have been using computers and networks for many years.  I was one of those guys out there cruising on the internet and other networks before there ever was a World Wide Web to surf.  In all that time, I have learned a great deal about etiquette and ethics in the online domain from friends and coworkers.

Friends have written nasty emails to me, and vice versa.  I’ve been on both the giving and the receiving end of digital miscommunication; where the sender’s emotional content was misinterpreted by the receiver – a commonplace occurrence with computers.  I have witnessed firsthand long email battles, and even participated in a few.  I’ve visited the newsgroups and the forums, and seen some of what passes for communication there.

I’ve also spent a lot of time reading about things we can do to communicate more effectively, and to let people know when our buttons get pushed without pushing back.  So here are a few of my handy little suggestions for what to do to be a responsible, ethical social networker:

  • Expose Bigotry and Intolerance: Do not simply take a “pass” when a friend posts something racist.  This is your opportunity to tell him the truth – that his comment was racist from your perspective, and why.  Would you want your friend to allow you to get away with that?  If you were simply unconscious of your impasse, wouldn’t you want someone to tell you?  In either case, it would be socially irresponsible of you to fail to comment back at such a message.  Leaving no comment is like being a German back in the 30’s and taking a pass as you walked down the street and saw some thugs beating a Jew.  Have some guts and confront the person.  You’re online!  What’s he going to DO, un-friend you!?  Oooh.  Scary.
  • Challenge Bogus Statistics: When you see bogus statistics or manipulated data that you know to be false, post the data that refutes it.  Don’t get into a long diatribe with the person, but simply post the refuting information.  Allowing your friends to get away with believing in BS is kind of lame, but allowing them to spread their BS to a bunch of other people via a social network is detestable.  Do your best to stop them by simply posting the refuting data without some argument telling them how wrong they are.
  • Challenge Bogus “Facts”: When you see someone using misinformation or disinformation, or information that is deliberately false or misleading in any way, point it out.  Leaving this misinformation there unchallenged for others to believe is socially irresponsible.  We have all heard about how much of the news on the web is fake.  It doesn’t help matters any if you allow it to continue when you witness it.  Let others know, too.  Post the accurate information as part of your response.
  • Be Willing to LOSE Friends: Don’t be so damned cautious about letting your friend know his posts offended you.  Be willing to actually lose a few friends over stuff like this.  People will un-friend you.  They’ll not be able to take your honesty, or your point of view, and they’ll leave.  Be willing to have this happen.  Personally, I feel that if a person cannot listen to my honest viewpoint and concerns without hating me, that they’re not my friend anyway.  Good riddance.
  • Do NOT Un-Friend People: Do not be a person who un-friends people for the content of their posts.  If you simply un-friend everyone who says things you don’t like, you’ll have a lot less friends and will have zero opportunities to actually influence a few of those jackoffs who pissed you off in the first place.  If John posts something horribly sexist, and I just un-friend him without telling him, how is he to know?  It could be months before he even notices I un-friended him at all, or he could never notice it.  Even if I tell him before I leave, I’m still robbing him of the benefit of my future feedback.  Let your friends un-friend you if they can’t take you expressing your viewpoint on their wall.
  • Stand Up For the Underdogs: Stand up for other people when you see them or their ideas being abused by someone online.  Don’t just let that go by unchallenged.  Be willing to stick your nose into the business, and say, “hey that’s not right to treat that person that way,” instead of just leaving well enough alone.  “Leaving well enough alone” has gotten us all sorts of misfortune in this world.
  • Write in E-Prime: English Prime, or E-Prime means English without the word “is.”  If you have trouble expressing yourself in a way that does not bring up an emotional charge in the reader or listener, consider E-Prime.  You can get tutorials for it online.   I have personally found that when expressing controversial ideas, or ideas about which people generally argue at length, it seems helpful to write or speak in E-Prime.  People seem less likely to be offended by materials written in E-Prime than materials written in plain English.  Most of the sentences in this article were crafted in E-Prime for this very reason.
  • Resist Snarkiness & Sarcasm: This is the hardest one for me.  When I see a friend post a horribly offensive sexist joke against men, I am tempted to respond with an equally offensive sexist joke against women.  In fact, I have done things exactly like this several times.  The usual result is to simply be un-friended with no comment.  Interesting, as in both cases where this happened, I was “guilty” of exactly the same offense they were.   In any case, a sarcastic response generally will not communicate your message that “your post was offensive,” and is more likely to make you look like a douche bag.  I know it can be hard, and I struggle with it too, but resist the urge to make your response “funny” or into a sort of “come-uppance.”  It seems to fall flat more often than to get the point across.

Personally, I will make the following pledge to all those “friends” in my networks on social networking sites:

I pledge on my honor to challenge morally or ethically ambigous or factually errant materials when I see them from friends in my social networks.  I will make every effort to express myself in a clear and calm manner when challenging people.  I will not un-friend those who challenge my own ethics or moral values, but instead will continue to express my views to them.

It is my feeling that if we all took this or a similar pledge, we could use social networking to build a better society.  One of the biggest social benefits that can be gained from social networking is a communication of our ethical and moral sense to others in a way that simply was not possible before the web.  Take the opportunity of these changing communication structures to shape the future toward what you’d like to see.  I’m sure we’d all want a more enlightened, honest, accepting populace.  We won’t get there by turning the other way while one of us abuses another one of us.  We might just get there if we start actually telling each other when our moral sense gets wrankled, instead of hiding it behind “polite discourse.”  The web allows us to sidestep the “polite discourse” of earlier ages and say what’s really on our minds in a space that feels “safer” because that jackass who just made an offensive comment is not in the same room with us.  He may not even be in the same city or state.  He’s off in cyberspace somewhere, and can’t pop me one on the nose for telling him that his last comment was racist.

Screw polite discourse.  That was for earlier ages and other situations, such as when the guy might actually pop you one on the nose, or when addressing Ladies at Court.  Well, there’s no danger of either of those on Facebook, so let those fingers do the typing, and let your friends know how you really feel about what they write.  Help us evolve as a species, and begin to realize the impact our thoughts and preconceptions have upon one another.  Do them the valuable service of saying what you really think without holding anything back.

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