The ethics of listening

Ethics is such a fun subject, or perhaps it keeps coming up because we're not quite sure which rules apply. Mom's rules (be honest, be nice) don't seem adequate in the commercial sphere, and so we have ethics guidelines. Lots to choose from, actually, depending on who you are and what you're up to. As it turns out, even reading blogs can have ethical implications.

The ethics of writing
Usually when people talk about ethics and social media, they're talking about writing, or creating, online content. Around the time that flog entered the lexicon as a contraction of fake blog, the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) came out with their ethical blogger contact guidelines, and we all talked about ethics for a while. Last month, the UK's Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) published their own social media guidelines—more wordy than WOMMA list and with a different slant, but another good source. Flogs, by the way, are still on the naughty list.

Bloggers may or may not have ethical standards, too, depending on who you ask. Reach back in time, and you'll find the CyberJournalist Bloggers' Code of Ethics (2003), although it's clear that not all bloggers are journalists. Caveat lector is the general rule, though some bloggers spell out their own personal codes of conduct.

The Occasionally Wild West of the online universe inspired the discussion on PR ethics and Wikipedia. The guidelines may be a little vague, and the enforcement uneven, but the warning signs are clear.

The ethics of listening
Listening to social media is one of my pet themes, because I'm convinced of the value that people and companies can find online. Listening online, like speaking online, takes many forms, from simple web browsing to high-end social media analysis. What they have in common is that you can collect useful information for a variety of purposes from open sources.

As it turns out, listening has ethical boundaries, too. Maybe.

Katie Paine reported some of Don Wright and Michelle Hinson's research from the Summit on Measurement, including this challenging bit:

While in 2005 79% thought employee blog monitoring was ethical, in 2007 only 27% saw it as ethical.
So even reading publicly available content is questionable—or at least debatable—under some circumstances. There was a related discussion in the HR/recruiting blogosphere last summer over the limits on using information from social media in hiring. The emerging consensus seemed to be that companies should be careful about how much information they collect, but that job candidates should be equally careful with what they leave for employers to find.

In talking with a social media analysis vendor today, I was reminded that the Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals (SCIP) has a code of ethics, which can come into play when companies use data mining for competitive intelligence. But that brief code provides no direct guidance on the limits on intelligence gathering from open sources. A CIPR-style note would be useful.

It seems appropriate that some information really shouldn't be collected, even if it is readily available online. Because listening to social media works in multiple functional roles, we're going to see different standards—or at least different standards keepers—for those groups. Marketing and PR have some ideas. HR is thinking about it. Is CI next? Who else needs to update their standards for the new tools?

Update: Here's a legal view from the US.

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About Nathan Gilliatt

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  • Voracious learner and explorer. Analyst tracking technologies and markets in intelligence, analytics and social media. Studying complexity and futures.
  • Principal, Social Target

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