Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Social networking vs. self-publishing: Web 2.0 mixes up the concepts

I had my first web page in early 1996 (just one page, literally). Then Hometown AOL came along – it was clunky at first, but by October 1996 AOL was offering personal publisher with the ability to upload a sizable number of “speech” files. By 1997, it was practical to have my own domain name, and I got setup with someone I had met in the workplace. By late 1998, about the time that the COPA litigation got going, it was apparent that search engines were becoming a major social driver. For my own affidavit, lawyers wanted details about my own traffic, and the government, in trying to defend COPA last year at the trial in Philadelphia, had obtained records of search arguments.

My original concept of web publishing was to cast it as a supplement to book publishing. A major component of my early sites (then called hppub.com, now doaskdotell.com) was the “running footnote files” that added commentary to the material in the books, with URL links, to keep up with the “moving targets” in social justice debates. I had expected word of mouth to generate traffic, and for about a year it did, as my lecture at Hamline University (St Paul, MN) in February 1998 (from crutches) was broadcast on cable TV in Minneapolis several times. In time, and certainly by the beginning of 1999, however, search engine traffic had become much more important. This introduced a new dynamic. People anywhere in the world could find me. That could help sell me, or it could be potentially dangerous, given social and political context.

The major risks were that potentially it could disrupt the workplace. If someone makes decisions about others (as a manager, underwriter, or teacher who gives grades) and demonstrated unusual political views on the web (under the First Amendment) he or she could generate legal challenges in the way carried out his discretionary duties on the job. This point got debated in 2003 when I made up a certification tests in business ethics for a testing contractor. Still, the issue remained one that seemed to belong to “publishing law.” A large internet site should be viewed like a book, and legally was subject to the same risks (although in practice the risks were less). Media perils insurance companies started balking (in 2001) at insuring people who posted controversial stuff on the web (especially without third party supervision), because the risk was actuarially impossible to determine and seemingly so dependent on the whims of a volatile and unpredictable social climate. Still, all of this fell within the paradigm of publishing issues – self-publishing.

The ante may have increased recently with recent New York Times op-ed about “libel tourism” lawsuits in British courts by Saudi businessmen over at least one book that was not even published in Britain, and the speculation that this could spread to the web. I discussed this recently on my International issues and Book Reviews blogs.

But the “publishing” paradigm began to waver about three years ago as companies started up social networking sites, the two largest being Myspace and Facebook, which operate somewhat differently. High school kids and college students began using them (to the point that “facebook” became a verb, just like “google”). People started using them for gossip (to the point that a new CWTV series “Gossip Girl” about the idea has been created). But the main use (of the user-generated content) was to “meet people.” Soon professional social networking got born, and companies were created not simply to post resumes but to manage professional images and contacts online. Along with came the murky concept of “reputation defense”, often discussed in these blogs,

Social networking sites ("Web 2.0") have create companies with a dilemma. Because average people use them to “converse” and “meet up” (in fact, another variety is the “meet-up group site”), companies started viewing most amateur web content – including blogs and older content-heavy (and book originated) sites like mine, as intended to attract social and professional contacts rather than just to “get published” or influence political debate. Recent legal “scandals” about misuse of chatrooms (as documented by Chris Hansen on Dateline) only heighten public anxiety. That’s why reputation defense has become controversial. Companies have to worry about what “other people think” about anyone whom customers trust as a “professional,” when customers can find what the employees say on these sites. Generally, people are more likely to view such speech as "conversational" (not "literary" or "Socratic") and speculate about the ulterior motives of the speaker; otherwise acceptable speech might come across as inappropriate or even illegal enticement. Whitelisting the potential audiences for social networking profiles has not mitigated employer skittishness as much as one would expect. Furthermore, in some businesses, employers are starting to want to manage the online presence of their associates professionally (insisting that what "narcissistic searches" lead to results congruent with their professional presence), and want them to use social networking to actually generate leads for business. Simply staying off the networking sites (which some people may want to do) won’t be good enough. (Right now, I have a small site, johnwboushka.com, the first to come up on searches, that explains how I structure my web presence.) The Internet, and especially the social networking phenomenon, has turned the idea of personal lifestyle privacy upside down. Everyone is public, and this could expose some people to risks they had never contemplated before.

My social paradigm was to attract the kind of people that I wanted to deal with by posting well-researched materials on these social controversies. Actually, over the past decade, this has worked pretty well. The problem is that, in the future, others (especially employers) could insist on wanting to do this for me, diluting any sense of intellectual honesty. Many people, in fact, perceive speech as in reverse: one builds one's social position in a familial, business, and/or religious "hierarchy" and speaks only to promote those connections. To do otherwise (to attract attention with speech "out of turn" when one hasn't proven accountability to others) may spawn a new kind of security threat, as we have sometimes seen at least in Britain and Europe.

Remember, most of the time when people write or express themselves to “get business,” they express only one side of an issue, because they are paid to do so. It's this practical business requirement that helps generate catering to special interests in political forums. Writing or speaking in an adversarial maneer contradicts the expectation of intellectual honesty that I learned in high school (especially from one history teacher – see Sept. 14, 2007 on this blog), where one should account for all points of view in understanding a problem. (Of course, high schools do teach debate, as arguing one side or the other, as in the films "Thumbsucker" and "Rocket Science".) In a larger sense, if one wants to cover a political issue ("equal rights...") one has to cover all possible topics that can affect that issue, however remotely, and however that could affect some people's perception of the interests of the speaker. Full coverage and objectivity are what I’ve insisted on in these blogs and sites. Unfortunately, the growth of social (and “social business”) networking on the web confuses the idea that web speakers really even can approach issues with any kind of personal candor and honesty.

Update: Oct. 23, 2007

Janet Kornblum has a cover story on page 1 of the Life Section of USA Today (no online link yet), "Privacy? That's Old School: Internet generation views openness in a different way; schools warn against revealing too much." The story has a mention of PFIR, People for Internet Responsibility. It also mentions the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which studies the impact of the Internet on kids. 66% of teens with social networking profiles keep parts of them hidden. Authorities still are concerned about the risks to kids of attracting predators, and at least about remote threats to families of kids since it is relatively easy to track "public" people down even when they do not publicize all of their personal information; this may be a bigger matter in Europe than in the U.S.

Update: Oct. 29, 2007

NBC Nightly News today reported on the corporate practice of giving associates higher titles ("vice president") without more responsibilities. Donald Trump said that he loves to give out higher titles that don't require more pay. This is contrary to the flattening of organizations and increase in span of control that was advocated in cost-cutting and "total quality management" in the 1980s and 1990s. Giving someone a higher title could increase the risk of conflict of interest with the person's own speech, as already often noted.

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