The Unforeseen Consequences of the Social Web

The social Web has given users great power: the ability to create and share content with people around the world – easily and quickly. The problem of course, is that power is often not compatible with effective and clear thinking. The thought that germinated in an instant can be immortalized in perpetuity on the Web.

With the extraordinary growth of the Internet and the interlinking of information that the social Web has brought with it, it’s time to examine the footprints we leave on the Web as we move into the future that promises to “throttle the ‘wisdom of the crowds’ from turning into the ‘madness of the mobs,'” as described so eloquently by Jason Calacanis.

Search Engines Are No Longer Enough

With Internet usage growing at a remarkable pace it comes as no surprise that comScore recently rated Google as the most popular Internet property in the world, attracting over 777.9 million visitors as of December 2008. Not surprising either is the growth of social and news sites. According to Compete some of the top social sites attracted visitors in the millions during December 2008:

  • FaceBook: 59 million visitors
  • MySpace: 59 million visitors
  • Digg: 33 million visitors
  • Twitter: 4.4 million visitors

This growth can be contributed in part to the media as they realize the benefits of instant access to an enormous well of information that the Web provides. As media folk are becoming increasingly tech savvy, they’re realizing results from search engines are often lacking. In an effort to gain as much insight into specific topics they are now turning to social sites for research.

Interconnected on the Web

While it’s exciting to live in an ever connected and always on world, the flip side that we have to accept is that we also live in a world where information is becoming increasingly interlinked. Today it is relatively simple to follow footprints on the Web if we want to track both people and brands.

For instance, take a look at my public profile on Twitter and you’ll notice I can also be found on other sites: BlogWell, ReadWriteWeb and The Drill Down. Visit BlogWell and you’ll notice I can be found at WebMama and TechTalkRadio. Visit The Drill Down and you’ll see my contact information for Digg. While I occasionally use different user names on sites, I publicly declare my affiliations and unless you know me really well, or have reason to follow me across the Web, you may not realize the relationships I have or where I can be found online by visiting any one site.

While the information about me on the Web is not terribly exciting, I do leave a little bit of information on every site I visit. And therein lies the rub. Say something in passing on a social site and it may come back to haunt you.

There is No Delete Button on the Web

It is becoming increasingly difficult to remove content from the web. The Internet Archive and its Way Back Machine gives you a historical snapshot of a site within seconds. Google gives you cached pages displaying pages that may have been deleted for any number of reasons. Photo sharing sites that store images online combined with services like Twitpic that let you quickly upload pictures to social sites – all of these great social Web resources also leave your historical Web footprints open to dissection in the future.

And although the information you put out on the Web may seem insignificant today, you have to ask the question of whether it will be insignificant tomorrow, or in five years when you need to apply for college or seek new employment. Additionally, you have to ask yourself whether you’re just leaving more junk for the next generation to clean up.

New York Times’ Policy on Social Networking

Poynter Online recently published the New York Times’ policy regarding social networking sites, as provided by The Times’ assistant managing editor Craig Whitney. In the memo, Whitney, who is responsible for overseeing journalistic standards, points out that social sites “can be remarkably useful reporting tools,” but is quick to warn reporters to take care when using them. “Anything you post online can and might be publicly disseminated, and can be twisted to be used against you by those who wish you or The Times ill.”

For a long time, The New York Times Company has had a policy on ethics in journalism and this move to document a social media policy can only be seen as a step in the right direction. However, there are some that see this as one of the reasons “mainstream media is doomed to irrelevance.”

For the record, it is possible to remain passionate and true to your beliefs while participating on the social Web. What social sites should not allow – nor excuse – is a belief held by many that common courtesy and simple manners should be bypassed simply because you’re not there in the flesh.

Whether you agree or disagree with Whitney’s take on the social Web, it’s important to recognize this huge step that The Times has taken. It has finally worked out that information on the Web is intricately intertwined. The article is well worth a read.

Getting Caught on the Web with Your Pants Down

There have been many instances where people and corporations have been caught out by content they upload to the Web. Whether the content is an image, a 140 character Tweet, or a blog post, we hope the following examples will give you time to reflect on the content you are uploading today.

Meltdown on Twitter

Last week, the Applicant blog talked about a hypothetical human resource bot in an attempt to persuade its readers of the importance of being aware of what they post to the Web. It was predominantly written to encourage readers to consider the ramifications of outbursts on the Web as applied to career and employment.

The very next day Twitter user Astrospace suffered an online meltdown which was captured as an image and posted on Applicant, giving their hypothetical post a great big shove into reality. “If I were an employer this certainly wouldn’t be my ideal applicant, and at this point their brand is without a positive brand image,” the Applicant post says.

While Astrospace may have had good reason for his rant (as most of us do), his outburst has now been captured and will possibly remain online for a very long time.

You Never Know Where Your Dulcet Tones will Turn Up

Last year when David Berkowitz boarded a train in New York he heard an argument between a woman and a man. While his first instinct was to get off the train, he made the decision to continue on.

This turned out to be fortunate for those with a sense of humor as he decided to record the argument and it now resides somewhere out there on the Web.

In this instance it may be more difficult, if not impossible to track the folks involved in the argument across the Web, but it still shows the importance of putting your best foot forward when in public – whether online or off.

Do You Know Who’s Following You Online?

Peter Shankman recently discovered a seemingly off-the-cuff Tweet by James Andrews, an executive of Ketchum New York.

“True confession but I’m in one of those towns where I scratch my head and say “I would die if I had to live here!”

Sounds innocuous enough right? Not so. Andrews was in Memphis and on the way to meet his client FedEx. Turns out a Fed-Ex employee was terribly offended and responded with an e-mail that was copied to a variety of people including the folks in charge at Ketchum and the execs from Fed-Ex.

According to Shankman, the letter begins like this:

“Mr. Andrews,

If I interpret your post correctly, these are your comments about Memphis a few hours after arriving in the global headquarters city of one of your key and lucrative clients, and the home of arguably one of the most important entrepreneurs in the history of business, FedEx founder Fred Smith.”

Read the entire e-mail here.

Clearly, what you do on social media leaves traces and cannot be easily removed from the Web. Information can fairly easily be tracked back to you and what you say and do will be public for a long time. Whether you believe in monitoring yourself online or not, don’t forget the point of the social Web: to get to know other like minded people, share resources, have fun, and leave the place a little nicer than you found it.

Although we were planning to include a resource list of tools and services to help you monitor your online presence today, we’ve decided to leave it for next weekend given the length of this post.

As always, your opinion is very much appreciated and we look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments.

Image Credit: Vu Bui

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