Friday, January 8, 2010

Fear and Loathing in Social Media

Will the tragedy of the commons destroy social media?

In a previous article, I wrote about how certain types of antisocial behavior are harming social media. I called these characters The Blammer, the Drive-by Shooter and the Hitchhiker.

Today, I am adding one more character to my list: the Hijacker.

The Hijacker is a more intense, annoying and destructive version of the Drive-by Shooter. This person typically starts a discussion or discussion forum on a topic, then immediately hijacks it for other purposes (personal or professional).

Recently, I have seen this happen on LinkedIn, where some unqualified, marginally qualified or just plain disturbed people start Groups or join Groups then subvert them with out-of-context commercial content, off-topic discussions, and inappropriate comments - including personal attacks and romantic overtures (some alcohol-fueled, I am guessing).

For example: recently a member* of a Professional Group on LinkedIn posted what seemed to be a good question, although poorly structured and worded. Other members started responding in earnest – many with very useful, thoughtful comments, others with less-useful, off-topic comments. The discussion soon degraded into an unintelligible, off-topic mess with personal sniping between the person who posted the original question and several other members of the discussion. The discussion eventually got back on track – until it was derailed again by a long, off-topic comment and flirtatious overture to a female group member by the person who posed the original question. I left the discussion and deleted all my comments. I am now wary about participating in any discussions in this Group.

In another group, the CEO* of a large company posted a question that was naïve and confused –completely at odds with his industry stature. I read the question three times before I understood what was going on. He was overtly baiting people. Several people responded in earnest to his question. He then proceeded to excoriate and taunt those who responded for their naiveté. He dangled offers of work, asking people to respond privately; then later revealed parts of those private conversations in the discussion. This whole exercise was obviously a ham-handed attempt to promote his company’s services – products that replaced the type of people that he was trying to “hire.”

This is sad. LinkedIn is a great place for professionals to connect, collaborate and learn from each other. It is based on free-market principles. LinkedIn’s operator provides the framework, but LinkedIn members shape the content with their mutual interests. Members also shape the community by following unstated but mutually understood rules of etiquette.

Unfortunately, I fear that LinkedIn is falling victim to the tragedy of the commons. A few people are hijacking Groups and Discussions – the commons, or shared resources – and using them for their own self-interest. By putting their self-interest above the interests of the community, the hijackers are over-using and depleting the resources. The behavior of a few will eventually make the resource less valuable for all.

LinkedIn has established some basic controls and guidelines to help ensure the integrity of the community, such as the ability for Group administrators to pre-approve members and delete comments. But, at least in my recent experience, these basic controls aren’t universally applied.

As a professional, the best I can do is manage my own behavior so that I contribute constructively to LinkedIn and get the most benefit for my personal brand. This includes not participating in Groups and Discussions that have turned destructive.

My advice: If you really care about your personal brand and reputation, don’t try to fake your motives or your professional credentials/expertise. Many people do start Groups that are specific to a company or have a commercial goal, but they usually they state their objectives publicly.

If you want to participate in a Professional Group to learn the profession – admirable – do so – but listen, learn and contribute honestly. Before contributing, watch how others behave and get a feeling for the tenor of the Group or Discussion. There are a number of people on LinkedIn who do a great job of balancing self-interest (self-promotion) with the interests of the community – find some and learn from them.

Most people on LinkedIn are honest and helpful – which is what makes the service so valuable. Return the favor by not wasting people’s time and good will by injecting false motives or credentials into the system. Just because the bits are free doesn’t mean you should eat them all.

* I am avoiding real names here because lawyers have apparently identified social media as fertile ground for defamation lawsuits.

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