Sunday, February 27, 2011

On the Social Web, Everyone Knows If You're a Dog

I remember using a computer for the first time in 1990 - it was when I wrote my first computer program, in BASIC. Internet access in the nineties was an absolute luxury in India. In fact I had little activity on the internet until the mid nineties. I do remember reading some years back though, that in 1993, Peter Steiner had published a cartoon about the internet in the New Yorker. The cartoon featured two dogs at a computer, with one dog saying to another, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog". The cartoon seemed to symbolise the anonymity with which users could participate on the internet. The internet in those days was definitely a lot about content. People and conversations were not part of internet currency yet. In the last two decades however, the internet has changed and how! Social media has made the internet more about context than content and the fact is that today, if you're dog, you'll soon get figured out on the social web.

The Only Social Media Rule You Need to Remember
Last year at DevLearn 2010, my friend and industry colleague Cammy Bean said that the only social media rule or guideline people need is, "Don't be an @$#hole". While that statement is amusing, it's also quite profound. Frankly, it's not so tough being on social media. Just don't be ill mannered and don't do stupid things. Why then do some people still behave like absolute boors on the web? In the past year or so, I've gotten kicked out of at least two different social groups for simply demanding better behaviour. Now I'm not talking about non-assertive behaviour, I'm just saying good behaviour. And frankly it isn't rocket science.

Real Authority and Respect Comes from Humble Facilitaton
I got that response from a community lead of a fairly active wildlife forum on Facebook. To give you some context, I was responding to a fairly open question creating a second home for Asiatic Lions. I don't claim to be an expert on the subject - I just wanted to share what I thought and knew. The community lead chose to tear me to pieces on the forum and almost told me to shut up because she was sure I knew nothing! Again, I'm not an expert on behavioural science, but I know that if you want to grow your community, you want to invite opinions and encourage debate. Could she have handled her disagreement differently?

Abusiveness only Portrays You in Bad Light
The message you see above is a real example of the kind of language I strongly object to. There's no doubt that the we all deserve the right to express ourselves freely. That said, language of this nature serves no one well. People who you're talking about will just read your language and reject you outright. People whose attention you wish to catch are likely to see your strong words, but understand nothing about why you're upset and why you feel in a certain way. Most importantly, a conversation that starts on this kind of a note is unlikely to be constructive. The only place it can go is south.

Don't Defend Poor Behaviour
If you're a community manager, then you have a responsibility to make your community a safe place to contribute. There are no two ways about it. You need to be cognizant of bad behaviour regardless of who it comes from. In the above case, I responded to the abusive comment and asked if we could avoid profanity on the forum. The community lead came out and vociferously defended the original poster stating his experience in conservation as a license for poor behaviour. Soon after, I found myself kicked off the group and the community manager had made the group secret so I couldn't even find it if I searched for it. Wow! Isn't being respectful at least a bit easier?

Don't Undermine the Feedback Loop
When I publicly challenged the rude commentary here, I got some amount of support from a well respected member of the group. It seemed natural for the community lead to apologise for her boorish conduct, but all I saw was a justification of why she was right to behave the way she eventually did. I remember at another community, when I raised my concerns about the poor organisation of presentations at the group's monthly meetings, the community lead was so furious, she said, "If you think attending **** sessions is a waste of time, please don't bother attending any sessions". I took the cue and left the group for good. You could fault me, depending on the way you look at it, but the fact is that in each case, I provided feedback. In each case, it was the community lead's responsibility to take that feedback graciously. Instead, all I got in each situation was retribution. Frankly, I don't really care about being part of communities that don't believe in respectful conduct. That said, each of these social media participants have tarnished their own reputation because I and others will carry these stories across the web. After a while, it's a really small place to hide poor behaviour.
While a lot of what I've written today comes from my own experience, I don't want this to appear as a sob story. I am really surprised at how people can say things they'd never say in person, just because they're on a social network. Social media attaches all of this misbehaviour to our public identities. Do we really want to build our identities this way? We deeply undermine our own credibility by being ill-mannered in our conduct online. It takes very little effort to be respectful. Just that little effort, and I hope the social web can be a much better place to participate. What's more, we can continue to retain the credibility we deserve. What do you think?

28 comments:

Richard said...

Nowadays, speaking on the Internet is not much different from appearing on the TV and newspaper. Teachers and parents should teach their kids not to do something silly online and leave the records in the public which are sometimes difficult to be removed completely. And now, another occupation is emerging - online image consultant.

Kelly said...

The community manager's behavior exhibits both poor community management skills and generally rude behavior. The communities that are a joy to participate in are ones founded on mutual respect and politeness.

It's difficult to encourage lively community and discussion when the leader is admonishing people for their eager participation. How unpleasant!

Elsie said...

Most times, when people are being so defensive, it is because they are insecure. A mature leader facilitates polite input from multiple sources. Most people who comment are trying to be helpful, but they can't be helpful if the leader gets defensive and shuts off participation.

Joitske Hulsebosch said...

I wonder about intercultural diffferences in language? I think it plays a role in the case described. What do you think about it?

Sumeet Moghe said...

I think it does @joitske. I also fear that in the subcontinent some users have a noveou rich approach to social media. Because they are early adapters in their circle they often tend to believe they can undermine others. Comes from being a very competitive culture. A lot of us tend to believe that to prove you're good, you need to also prove you're better than others. That's one of the reasons behind poor online conduct in my view.

Manish Mohan said...

There must be a reason why the group is a closed group :-)

Sreya Dutta said...

Yep and I'm the one who added you to the group. Quite a mess. I'd missed this conversation after being reprimanded for adding someone 'unknown' (to the admin ) to the group. I didn't know how to remotely explain the situation to you as i didn't see any problem and asked her to respond to you. I didn't know what exactly had happened but some jumbled up version of what the lady concerned told me when i unsubscribed from the group. But this incident was the beginning of me seeing my new acquaintance in a different light. Glad i'm out myself.. quite an abusive group.

Sreya Dutta said...

One more thing though.. dogs are really nice and polite :)

Antor Biswas said...

I've never known a dog who doesn't wolf down anything food-related at the drop of a hat. He's clearly a very discerning gentleman!

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