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Social media technology – or Web 2.0 – has been around for several years now, and for most organizations debate on social media activities has shifted from if to how. Despite an accumulation of case studies and ubiquitous social media “experts” selling their wisdom, however, many organizations are still struggling to define and execute a viable strategy.
Brian Solis, a thought leader with Altimeter Group, recently published a helpful checklist of best practices for brand building in social media. Beyond the useful tips, Solis highlights some of the common challenges – and shortcomings – of social media activities in the marketplace. Perhaps most notable is the stubborn focus on marketing – impulsively building branded properties across social channels primarily to promote the brand and spur sales – at the expense of relevant content and sustained engagement. This myopic approach fails to consider the ultimate litmus test for any social media strategy: is the activity/channel providing relevant, long-term value to targeted consumers? Not surprisingly, there is still a strong “push” reflex to many of the social media programs.
But lack of strategic focus and self-serving outreach are not the only problems. In my experience, the biggest and most surprising shortcoming is the lack of originality and innovation in the social media activities of many organizations. Many programs are tentative forays (branded Facebook pages) using obvious, safe paint-by-number templates. But for those who are interested, and motivated, there are plenty of successful, smart programs that go beyond the ordinary and manage to break through the noise. As one example, check out Secret’s anti-bullying campaign – Mean Stinks. As noted in this AdAge article, while many of the ingredients (channels) in the campaign are fairly typical, the recipe of multi-media tactics and content is original and fresh (no pun intended.) Included in the mix are a “good graffiti” app, referral info for counseling centers, a donation tie-in and the ability to upload personal video apologies or complaints. The result has been rapid growth in fans/friends, strong repeat traffic and a notable boost in Secret deodorant sales. (The program included links to purchase P&G products – a reminder that an appropriate link to sales platforms can be part of the mix.)
So what can we learn from this? While many organizations need to spend the time developing robust, focused social media plans, they can’t forget to add the pixie dust of creativity. That will help ensure they break through the noise and truly engage with their customers and fans. Smart, memorable marketing apparently never goes out of fashion.
Over the past few years I’ve had numerous discussions with clients and peers about the dramatic disruptions caused by new social media technology. In the early years, in particular, not everybody accepted the premise that these changes were in fact occurring, or driving fundamental shifts in how people gather and share information. Well here we are, several years into the so-called Web 2.0 revolution. If nothing else, what has become widely acknowledged – even among the most recalcitrant naysayers – is that we are truly living in a digital world.
Indeed, a recent article by McKinsey provides another layer of accumulating empirical evidence that global consumers are increasingly communicating and conducting business through digital devices. This study mirrors a recent report by Forrester (presented at SXSW 2011) that suggested employees – most of them wired, social networkers – were increasingly using their technology within the workplace, firewalls and rules be damned. [FYI: both these articles may have restricted access and require registration.]
Here are some highlights of the McKinsey study:
- Nearly 50 percent of US online consumers are now advanced users of smartphones, social networks, and other emerging tools—up from 32 percent in 2008;
- Social networks, particularly Facebook, are emerging as the dominant digital-communications channels. For people aged 34 and under, they already are the preferred channel (by minutes of use per day), displacing e-mail, texting, and phone calls. Social-network use, growing swiftly among all segments of our survey population, has doubled among those over 55;
- As the usage and processing power of smartphones increase in tandem with the rising speed of 3G and 4G data networks, mobile devices are invading the domains of single-purpose gear such as game consoles and portable media players, as well as PCs. Smartphones are also becoming the device of choice for e-mail, Web browsing, and product research;
- As digital platforms multiply, consumer video-viewing habits continue to change. Among our survey respondents, 69 percent now view videos on their PCs and 33 percent on their smartphones;
- Only 24% of respondents are considered “traditionalists”, or consumers who are less interested in internet browsing and social networking and are more likely to read print newspapers.
Given this data, there seems little doubt that discussions on communication or marketing strategy, and more specifically social media planning, can start from the premise that the majority of our audience are digital natives, or largely wired and fluent in social media. And that cuts across geography, job and income level – though there are still important variations based on these demographic variables. In a sense, the conversation should now shift from if to how or what we need to do differently.
Of course, this has important repercussions for communication professionals, whether the focus is PR or internal communications. At minimum, we need to plan based on this new reality, and ideally take advantage of the emerging opportunities to use fresh, original strategies. I like the approach proposed in another recent McKinsey article that argued that in this digital age we are all marketers. As the headline puts it: “engaging customers today requires commitment from an entire organization – and a redefined marketing organization.” Here’s an excerpt:
For the past decade, marketers have been adjusting to a new era of deep customer engagement. They’ve tacked on new functions, such as social-media management; altered processes to better integrate advertising campaigns online, on television, and in print; and added staff with Web expertise to manage the explosion of digital customer data. Yet in our experience, that’s not enough. To truly engage customers for whom “push” advertising is increasingly irrelevant, companies must do more outside the confines of the traditional marketing organization. At the end of the day, customers no longer separate marketing from the product—it is the product. They don’t separate marketing from their in-store or online experience—it is the experience. In the era of engagement, marketing is the company.
This bold, innovative approach is a useful model for communication professionals. We must avoid falling into old patterns and timid ideas and instead develop new programs that are resonant and relevant to this population of digital natives. In short, we need to change. And we need to help our clients change. With the overwhelming evidence of the increasing reach and impact of new technology on consumers (including our employees and peers), there’s really no excuse for inertia.
I had to laugh when I read about celebrated theatre director Julie Taymor – who was recently unceremoniously dumped from the ill-fated Broadway production of Spiderman – blaming her fall on Twitter and Facebook. Call it a 2.0 twist on the time-honored tradition of blaming the messenger – typically the media but now social media platforms – for fanning the flames of criticism and spurring negative outcomes. (This is almost as spurious as Newt Gingrich blaming the “mainstream media” for putting his words in his mouth on Meet the Press a few weeks ago.) One wonders if Ms. Taymor would have complained if the buzz about her play would have been positive.
This argument has been a mainstay of frustrated politicians, executives and artists for generations when they receive less than positive media coverage or public reaction. And it’s an absolute waste of time. Yes, it true that networking platforms like Twitter and Facebook have become super highways for word-of-mouth – good or bad. And yes, its true that news media can sometimes sensationalize, focus on soundbites at the expense of context, pile on and…gasp…even inject some of their own bias in their reporting. But in the vast majority of communication snafus – resulting in a negative coverage and/or word-of-mouth – the driving force behind public reaction lies in the original statement, policy or product rather than the channel through which information or opinion is disseminated. Communication channels can help to amplify or influence public reaction, but they have no inherent bias or purpose in themselves.
So instead of blaming a platform like Twitter – which is merely an extremely convenient channel for sharing comments and ideas and provides a voice to millions of global users – folks like Taylor and Gingrich should focus on their own role in the communication process, and probe the reasons behind the mixed public reaction and commentary. In fact, implicit in these complaints about evil media messengers (or social platforms) is that the public reaction they reflect (and generate) is somehow unfair, or even misguided. This reflects a certain arrogance and tin ear, a trait that has caused the downfall of many public figures. A better approach is to accept the verdict of the public or fans and learn from the feedback.
The lesson for communication professionals – and for executives and artists seeking to promote their message or craft their public image, is that there is nowhere to hide in this era of real-time, 24/7 news coverage and social networking. News and commentary will travel fast and wide, and not all of it will be positive or even logical. There is still room to manage the public discussion and promote your agenda or argument, but don’t blame the messenger, or the customer, if things don’t work out the way you wanted. Instead take a look in the mirror.
One of the issues I keep encountering in my work (and personal life) is the surprising gap between the use of social media technology outside the workplace and inside corporate firewalls. More specifically, many organizations continue to try to keep out the waves of disruptive technology through every means possible – including firewalls and restrictive company policies – while consumers of every age and region become more technologically agile and demanding. In some organizations, it’s as if you enter a time-warp where innovation is taboo and technology is used to restrict the flow of information, rather than fuel it.
I’ve argued that this corporate resistance is misguided and a recipe for strategic stagnation and market irrelevance – not to mention a serious drawback on recruitment and employee engagement. (Who wants to give up their smart phones and online tools when they go to work?) Well, a recent report by Forrester – which was presented during SXSW – suggests that despite their best efforts, these reticent companies may be losing the battle. [FYI – The study was available for free only for SXSW participants.]
A recent Forrester survey of U.S. information workers found that:
- 8% of workers use their own smart phone for work
- 12% download and use outside applications on a work computer
- 27% use unsanctioned login-required sites for work
Clearly, as the line between personal and professional blurs an increasing number of workers are using their personal communication tools and platforms for work purposes – and why wouldn’t they? New technologies – such as cloud computing, smart phones and social networks – foster lightning-quick information sharing, conversations and collaboration.
The study also confirms there is still stubborn resistance in corporate America, however. While 20% of respondents identified themselves as “HEROs” (the most resourceful and empowered) and 13% as “rogues” (using the technology without permission), 34% were defined as fully “locked down” and 34% as “disenfranchised” (feeling least resourceful and empowered). In the Forrester context the “HEROs” are the ones who know and understand customer needs and use technology to better serve those empowered customers.
The study argues that the smart response to this rogue trend is to empower workers to serve empowered customers. In fact, the study (and a related book) shares a number of examples of employees who used new social technologies to help the business, and ultimately benefit the customer experience. Hopefully this type of report will help dispel the favored argument of resistant executives that staff will use technology for frivolous pursuits. (Defining what is frivolous and what is productive is a topic for another post.)
Of course, there are many positive reasons why companies should introduce social media in the enterprise and provide their staff with the latest technology – notably to help them collaborate more efficiently and enable them as customer advocates – but now it appears the best reason is it’s going to happen anyway.
Last week I took my kids to see the Blue Man Group show – almost 13 years after seeing the innovative program during it’s original run in Chicago. Beyond noticing the updates in technology and content – there are several new segments that feature iPhones and digital messages – what struck me are the valuable lessons BMG has for professional communicators; think of it as a theatrical metaphor for highly original, memorable and impactful communication.
At its source BMG is about human communication – almost all of it non-verbal. The program features a dizzying range of multi-media sketches mixing mime, comedy, improv theatre, drumming, props and digital imagery. All the frenetic, often hilarious sketches relate to telling a story, and entertaining the audience. And it’s all done with very little “formal” communication.
Here are a few useful tips from the performance:
- Start conversations – Right from the beginning, when a scrolling text line gradually engages the audience in a fun back-and-forth dialogue, the performance goes well beyond the one-way “push” performance you’d expect with a show of this nature.
- Assume intelligence – Everything about the program (from the subtle mime movements to the smart comedic moments) suggests BMG take for granted their audience will get the joke. This is not a show that dumbs-down or shoot for the typical or obvious – despite the fact there are plenty of kids in the audience. It’s a good reminder that worrying too much about “talking down” to an audience can be counterproductive if it strips any nuance, wit and creativity from the communication.
- Let the audience join/be the performance – Like in many shows, the BMG group team use several members of the audience in some of their sketches. It also uses mobile cameras to focus on the audience at regular interludes…breaking down the proverbial fourth wall. The show also makes good use of informal crowd-sourcing, using audience input or reactions to influence the performance.
- Use your body – It’s no surprise that the BMG team use physical tricks and props in their performance – including the famous drumming on paint cans sequence – but it’s a good reminder that more formal presentations could benefit from better use of movement and stage presence.
- Use music to help set mood and emphasis – It often surprises me how little corporate communication professionals use music in their presentations and deliverables. Music is central to the BMG experience – ranging from basic drumming to background music – and is a major factor in the overall experience.
- Tackle the elephants – Too much corporate output is compromised because it tries to dance around contentious issues or latent questions among the audience. BMG boosts the relevance and impact of the show by going straight for the hidden elephants – such as celebrating the arrival of latecomers in a hilarious paparazzi-style announcement, or proactively addressing likely audience questions at the outset of the show.
- Go for a laugh – This show confirmed for me (again) that smart, timely humor can be a universal language that crosses age, background and culture. And most importantly, humor helps keep the attention of the audience and increases the chances participants will remember anything. Too many communicators frown on humor and argue it can dilute and distort a serious message. That may be true – in some cases – but the reality is that material that is serious and dull can be much more effective if presented in a more engaging format.
- Improvise – One of the great things about BMG is that it leaves plenty of room for surprises and improvisation. I really noticed this during the audience participation segments, where it appeared there was little structure or script to guide the volunteers…to positive effect.
- Make the event an experience – BMG is famous for the explosive ending where the audience is showered with toilet paper streams, confetti and giant balloons. Though this may sound like a silly exercise, this celebration is invariably a highlight of the program. At the Austin show I saw audience members spent almost 15 minutes “playing” after the formal end of the show.
Clearly, not all the tactics and tricks used by BMG are appropriate for more formal corporate communications. On the other hand, too many professionals adhere to outdated, unfounded rules about what constitutes effective communications – particularly in an era where YouTube parodies, virtual games and Twitter updates dominate the landscape. Blue Man Group shows communication can take many forms. It’s time we take a fresh look at the tool kit and focus on what works best, not what is accepted practice.
Just read a really interesting article in AdAge that provides a post-mortem autopsy on the Kenneth Cole Twitter scandal…and subsequent redemption. There are two provocative arguments in the article:
- Social media has dramatically accelerated the usual steps and cycle of scandals, including quick resolution and forgiveness for those who take appropriate action;
- The new scandal pattern features a secondary wave or parodies of the original blunder…which sometimes generates more attention that the original event.
Based on some recent miscues propagated on/by Twitter, it would appear that companies can go from goat to reformed sinner much faster than before the advent of social media. And the deluge of content on networks like Twitter and Facebook inevitably helps push old news out of the spotlight. That said, I would argue that the outcome of the crisis – and ultimate impact on the brands involved – depends on the magnitude of the original error, as well as how promptly and cogently the company reacts. Kenneth Cole quickly apologizing for his ill-advised use of #Cairo in his original tweet cannot be compared to the massive BP oil spill crisis, or even the recent Taco Bell “where’s the beef” situation. For one thing, those events quickly spread across social several social networks and traditional media channels and an easy, quick resolution is not likely to occur. (BP, for example, is likely to face years of legal repercussions.) These other crises also raise more fundamental, serious questions about the companies involved. Kenneth Cole may have been insensitive, but he wasn’t accused of endemic incompetence, harm to consumers or corporate corruption.
Despite these caveats, communication professionals should be aware that old models and time-honored principles of crisis management – do you remember the “5 R’s”…responsibility, regret, restitution, resolution and reform – are being influenced by the technology and mores of social media. In nothing else, it appears that some crises will be played out at lightning Web speed. Whether that makes it easier or harder to manage is open to debate, but it’s fascinating to watch.
The folks at AdAge posted an article recently on what they (and others) have described as the biggest social media campaign of the year: Coca-Cola’s global Expedition 206 project, where three “happiness ambassadors” travelled the world to document people’s search for happiness. Based on many measures, this campaign was a huge success, with over 650 million media impressions and huge global audiences across the campaign platforms – notably in relatively immature Coke markets like China. (It likely didn’t hurt that Coke’s social media properties are already among the most popular in the world.)
It’s interesting to note that some observers – including a few commenting on this article – aren’t sold on the success of the campaign. A few critics questioned whether the program had actually translated into a spike in sales, arguing increased awareness or positive buzz was a soft, meaningless measure of ROI. Others claimed they had never heard of the campaign, suggesting the ratings might be hype.
But beyond the debate about evaluating success – which is a big enough topic for another post altogether – I see a few important lessons for all communication/marketing professionals in this campaign:
- Social media is about people and local markets – The Coke folks developed the campaign blueprint at HQ and leveraged a core team to coordinate the massive undertaking, but used a decentralized approach where local teams (and the personable ambassadors) had flexibility to implement and customize the outreach. It’s also worth noting the prevalence of informal video in this program – a popular and compelling format that is too often ignored in many corporate programs;
- Be open to learning and adapting along the way – The Coke team freely admits they were flying blind on many aspects of this program, and leveraged the insights and feedback along the way to adjust the plan;
- Dont’ wait for things to be perfect – It might surprise some that even a social media leader like Coke launched this campaign knowing their teams would have to stretch to implement the campaign (for example, requiring a higher level of coordination across marcom groups and forcing many local teams to become more familiar with social media). Sometimes a campaign is the impetus for organizations to raise their game and overhaul technology and/or process…and that’s not a bad thing;
- Face-to-face still matters – Coke used a wide range of virtual activities in this campaign, but complemented the robust online tactics with critical local meetings and testimony by the ambassadors, which in turn generated much of the digital content. The heart of this campaign – as it were – was the personal friendships and outreach of the 3 ambassadors on the ground;
- Engage partners in relevant communities – The ambassadors reached out to local bloggers, fans and reporters to support their local outreach and extend local word-of-mouth;
- Be creative - This campaign went well beyond the typical, relatively safe Facebook and Twitter outposts favored by more timid organizations. The result was a campaign that was bold in scope and also much more interesting and lasting in terms of content and coverage.
These lessons were similar to what I experienced at Dell as part of the core team that developed and launched the social media programs several years ago. There were many things we didn’t know when we started, but we never would have learned – or made any progress – if we had waited for the perfect situation. Our focus was on getting the basics right – our strategy, objectives and key principles – but positioned our efforts as a constant beta test…constantly assessing, innovating and improving. Like with Coke, our efforts forced the issue on many fronts (for example the introduction of new technology and upgrades in infrastructure.)
The frenetic, unpredictable pace of evolution in social media doesn’t allow for ponderous, diffident planning more common even a few years ago. Yes, planning and strategic rigor still matter, but they shouldn’t get in the way of great ideas.
Many discussions about social media inevitably turn to the issue of ROI – or how you can measure impact and, more specifically, if there is empirical evidence (or reliable projections) that social media can boost hard business metrics like productivity, revenue and profits. While I’ve heard of a few isolated success stories (like Dell’s profits through Twitter promotions) I haven’t seen much consensus on a measurable, widespread impact – particularly related to consumer activities. In fact, there are still pockets of skeptics who deny social media can add directly to the bottom line. (Conversely, some social media fans/users suggest focusing on finding a bullet-proof ROI link is missing the point, since social media is more about conversation and engagement than short-term returns.)
Well, the folks at McKinsey – who could never be accused of using fuzzy math – recently came out with a study that suggests companies who make extensive use of the Web 2.0 technology have higher returns and margins than their peers. [FYI: you may have to subscribe to McKinsey to view the full report.] What’s telling about the findings is that McKinsey found that organizations that were highly networked – meaning they leveraged collaborative technology inside the enterprise as well as with external partners – were most likely to be market leaders (and gainers) and benefit from higher margins. There is plenty of room for progress, however; only 3 percent of survey respondents were defined as fully networked enterprises – with robust social media engagement across audiences. McKinsey also details the trend towards increasing use of social media inside the enterprise, and the shift beyond the more established business-to-consumer activities. The authors suggest this trend will exacerbate a gap between the forward-thinking organizations (who are gaining measurable benefits) and those reluctant to fully engage the collaborative technology.
A closer look at the findings shows that respondents to the global survey defined a wide range of “measurable benefits” – which confirms that most organizations are looking well beyond core metrics like profit-and-loss for evidence of ROI. But the purported benefits are by no means soft, in corporate parlance. Take a look at the top 4 benefits – based on percentage of respondents whose companies achieved benefits from use of Web 2.0 technologies – across the main categories:
- Increase speed of access to knowledge (77% of respondents)
- Reduce communication costs (60%)
- Increase speed of access to internal experts (52%)
- Decrease travel costs (44%)
- Increase effectiveness of marketing (awareness, consideration, conversion & loyalty) (63%)
- Increase customer satisfaction (50%)
- Reduce marketing costs (45%)
- Reduce support costs (35%)
- Increase speed of access to knowledge (57%)
- Reduce communication costs (53%)
- Increase satisfaction of partners (45%)
- Increase speed of access to external experts (40%)
How can companies join the networked high flyers described in this survey? Here are suggestions from the McKinsey study:
- Integrate the use of Web 2.0 into employees’ day-to-day work activities. What’s in the work flow is what gets used by employees and what leads to benefits.
- Continue to drive adoption and usage. Benefits appear to be limited without a base level of adoption and usage.
- Break down the barriers to organizational change. Fully networked organizations appear to have more fluid information flows, deploy talent more flexibly to deal with problems, and allow employees lower in the corporate hierarchy to make decisions.
- Apply Web 2.0 technologies to interactions with customers, business partners, and employees. Fully networked organizations can achieve the highest levels of self-reported benefits in all types of interactions
As someone who spends a great deal of my time working with companies on internal issues, I’m glad to get this additional ammunition to help convince companies their greatest potential to leverage social media may be inside the organization. McKinsey’s describes these progressive internally networked organizations as cultures where “information is shared more readily and less hierarchically, collaboration across organizational silos is more common, and tasks are more often tackled in a project-based fashion.” Buried in this description is the root of the problem; the reality is that some companies are still not willing to foster this type of decentralized, fluid communication environment. To some, information is still power…and they don’t want to give it up.
If there’s one phrase that makes me wince when I’m talking to peers or clients, it’s can you help us make a viral video? Believe it or not, I hear it quite frequently. Not surprisingly, many corporate executives are now true believers in the power of social media and want to leverage the tremendous profile and marketing clout of YouTube. Unfortunately, you can’t make a viral video. You can make a video and try to help it become viral – meaning viewers will drive others to see it, share it, comment and eventually make it a media sensation well beyond YouTube. Ultimately, viewers decide what becomes viral through their actions and comments.
Though consumers have the power, there are things you can do to increase your chances of encouraging uploads and buzz. Look at the recent Old Spice YouTube campaign as a good example of a successful viral program. This hilarious campaign – which piggy-backed on a popular television ad – has become a new paradigm of how to drive positive word-of-mouth through a viral video campaign. According to media reports, the campaign has generated hundreds of millions of views and publicity across media channels, and there’s also evidence it has boosted sales. The true genius of this campaign was the timely, interactive nature of the conversation – with the Old Spice shirtless man responding to individual tweets, reaching out to influential celebrities and pundits and even making a marriage proposal on behalf of a Twitter fan.
So why did the Old Spice campaign work so well? Here’s my short-list:
– Though the campaign left plenty of room for spontaneity, there was a marketing plan underneath the whimsy designed to maximize reach and impact across networks and sites;
– The videos were genuinely funny, smart and original – the original ads were a great starting point;
– It was responsive – not only in general terms via comments on YouTube but via individual Tweets responses/posts and video content;
– It was designed as an integrated program that went beyond YouTube;
– It downplayed the Old Spice brand (I didn’t find any mention of the products outside the original TV ads);
– The campaign was human and touching – including one video of the Old Spice actor sending a personal message to his son – reinforcing that social media is about real people;
– The campaign knew enough to end on a high, and called it quits before the joke wore thin.
Another important lesson is that the Old Spice guy generated plenty of spoof videos. Video parodies created by viewers are among the most popular on the internet and often widely surpass the original ads in popularity – so be careful what you wish for. (Two recent examples are the hundreds of video parodies of the Tiger Woods and LeBron James Nike commercials.) Further evidence that what goes viral is not decided by marketers but by consumers. (FYI: check out this article for recent stats on the top viral videos on YouTube.)
In the wake of the latest release of classified documents by WikiLeaks, a number of people have asked me if the leaks are simply a reflection of the growing importance of social media – with its emphasis on citizen journalism, transparency and candid conversation. My answer to them is no. WikiLeaks has little in common with the ethos of Web 2.0, and it certainly doesn’t represent the best of social media. Here are my reasons:
- WikiLeaks doesn’t really qualify as a transparent activity. Though it could be argued there is transparency in making public previously confidential or buried documents (that are confirmed as authentic) the whole process around the leaks has been opaque. In fact, the leaks are closer to a secretive publicity stunt than a public service. As per the modus operandi of the site, the original source of the leaked documents is still uncertain – though an American soldier has been charged.
- The importance of transparency in social media is often discussed in tandem with honesty. On that front WikiLeaks is on equally weak ground. First, the cables and memos were specifically written for select individuals or small groups. Clearly, they were released without the consent of the original authors and recipients. Second, WikiLeaks provides no insight on the value or accuracy of the leaked materials, essentially refusing to take any responsibility for the content. Third, it appears the documents were obtained illegally. WikiLeaks isn’t talking under the guise of protecting its sources.
- It’s difficult to argue the leaked information hasn’t fueled active conversation – the foundation of social media – but it’s less certain the discourse has been positive or beneficial to anyone involved. Much like dialogue preaching hate or racism is discouraged, one could argue the nasty brush fires sparked by the leaks has done little but raise tension between countries. On the other hand, the ethical debate around the leaks themselves has been constructive.
- Even in the fluid and informal world of social media, there are norms of conduct and rules of engagement. Most participants follow these informal guidelines and/or corporate policies and there’s often a visceral reaction in online communities against those that refuse to follow rules – which are typically designed to ensure the quality of the content and conversation. It’s not clear what rules or guidelines WikiLeaks subscribes to beyond acting as a clearing-house for documents that can bring to light – and help redress – human right abuses and criminal activity.
- Social media puts a big emphasis on valuable, relevant content. What I’ve seen from the recent WikiLeaks exercise is a massive, haphazard package of confidential diplomatic memos that may have more value to conspiracy theorists and spies than ordinary readers. The value of the materials is left for the reader to decide, and the benefits to any community (if any) are unclear.
- Most fans of social media would agree that sharing information comes with responsibility. There’s a glaring absence of common sense and judgement around the leaks. Many observers are concerned the leaks could result in serious diplomatic problems, and even compromise the safety of officials listed in the documents. Whether that’s true or not is apparently of no concern to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has claimed that releasing the material is in the public interest…but has not explained why or how that is the case.
I’ve heard some pundits arguing this leak follows in the grand tradition of rule-breaking muckracking, like the celebrated events surrounding the Watergate scandal. And if I take Assange at his word, I applaud his commitment to release any information that brings to light abuses and other criminal behaviour. But again, the context here is totally different than Watergate or even the Iraq war. There is no obvious scandal or political crime to uncover here, merely thousands of sensitive diplomatic discussions (containing predictable off-color candor) that serve no obvious public purpose and clearly put negotiations at risk. The leaks are closer to political gossip than investigative journalism.
There has been robust discussion about whether the leaks should be protected under the First Amendment – more specifically freedom of the press. (Conservative pundits, in particular, are happy to see an independent watchdog tweak the nose of the U.S. Government.) I’m not a legal scholar so I can’t answer the constitutional question, but the real issue isn’t whether WikiLeaks can make this information public, but whether it should.