Social media has cemented its place as a permanent presence in society. We’ve all heard the phrase about someone who has “Written the Book” on something. I recently had the pleasure to discuss the ethical considerations we all must be aware of when using any social media with a man who literally has. Northern Illinois University’s Dr. David Gunkel is an award winning new media educator and author of three books on information and communication technology.” His new book “The Machine Question: Critical Perspectives on AI, Robots, and Ethics” is due out this summer from MIT Press.
What are Social Media’s Ethical Guidelines?
What began as a simple paradigm in the period of Web 1.0 infancy has, according to many, evolved into a multi-headed hydra with names like facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Youtube. We all must consider how we use these “creatures”. Are they beneficial by helping the transmission of information and maintaining social community? Or are they dangerous entities to be abused and feared by all? I asked Dr. Gunkel what ethical guidelines should shape social media usage in my interview for My Web Writers.
Gunkel Advises Reading the Terms of Service
According to Gunkel, users of social media must first understand that “Terms of Service contracts stipulate the rights and responsibilities of all parties involved in social media – users, advertisers, developers, service providers, etc…” If we don’t take the time to read them before we click that Google Mail “accept” box, than we have no ethical right to complain as long as the provider is acting within the confines of the agreement. Gunkel asserts that it is the user’s responsibility to be aware of “what to expect in terms of social matters like personal privacy, use of intellectual property, grievance procedures and petitioning opportunities (if any)”. Essentially, if you don’t like it, don’t agree to it. If you do you have no one to blame but yourself if it goes wrong.
Gunkel’s “Prosumers”- Both Consumer & Producer
In the early days of the Web roles were clearly delineated between “producers” and “consumers” of data. Gunkel states that “you had centralized producers getting data out to consumers. So even though the network itself was decentralized, the content creation was centralized”. In today’s virtual landscape, data, text, and images are now supplied by everyone from professional bloggers and SEO writers to parents putting family vacation videos on facebook. Gunkel calls the new hybrid a “prosumer” – someone who has a foot in production and consumption at the same time. People have ethical responsibilities for what they are “producing”. Gunkel suggests, “If you wouldn’t say it in a crowded restaurant, you shouldn’t put it on your blog.”
Social Media Ethics Policy Guidelines
According to Gunkel, the ethics of social media isn’t confined to blogs or facebook updates. It should also guide a brand’s marketing. He cites several examples that should be considered.
- “Community is the brand” – These groups “…are not just add-ons that help manage and promote a corporate brand. The community IS the brand and anything that promotes this success is valuable”.
- “Share, Copy, Remix” – “Digital Content, by its very nature, is nearly impossible to control…” through various rules and stipulations. Brands should “…open up access and permit users to share copy and remix content. Doing so promotes the brand, builds a network of trust with users and draws on the collective intelligence…”
- “Friend is Job #1” – Even though “friend” is a cornerstone of social media. The brand must act as more a peer worthy of trust rather than what Gunkel terms “a good corporate citizen”. Trust in any “friend” takes a lifetime to build and just seconds to destroy. It needs to be treated with care and respect.
“Watch the Watchers” on Social Media
Finally, Gunkel urges users of social media to “watch the watchers”. Twitter, facebook, Pinterest and others are “…in the business of staying in business. Consequently, it’s the user’s responsibility to make sure service providers adhere to and play by their own rules. If a provider does something that contravenes its own Terms of Service, it is incumbent upon users to call out and hold the provider responsible….”
Dr. David Gunkel’s Ethics Conclusions
I asked Gunkel if there were any limits to ethical uses of social media. Is there a line in the sand users shouldn’t cross or are we living in a digital wild west? In his opinion, they are no rules of “absolute authority” which decide right and wrong. We as “prosumers” are guided by our own morality and are responsible for the content. Hence, all must be the judges of what is ethical or not. Ultimately, since we continually build and perpetuate social media “community” WE decide what is ethical and what needs to be done to enforce its rules and regulations.