October 2010 Archives

Ethics and social media monitoring: so much at stake, but the existing standards are linked to specific business functions. Can we fix that? Converseon suggested some questions for clients to use in avoiding service providers with problematic practices. Let's go a step farther and think about appropriate ethical standards for companies that do the actual monitoring and analysis work, regardless of which functional silo they support.

I have a few suggestions:

  1. Obey applicable laws.
    Stay legal—always nice to include that in the code. This will be trickier than it sounds, because (a) the law that applies to online monitoring is "complicated, multi-faceted and unclear," and (b) the Internet is global. Whose laws apply in which situations should be good for generating legal fees somewhere.

  2. Match clients' regulatory obligations.
    In addition to government regulations that apply to them directly, service providers should comply with requirements that apply to their clients. Service providers shouldn't be in the business of doing work that clients are prevented from doing themselves. Yes, this requires learning about clients' regulatory environments.

    Clients should extend their own compliance standards to service providers working for them—if you can't do it, don't hire an outside company to do it for you.

  3. Honor sites' terms of service.
    Whether terms of service are enforceable is a legal question that will eventually be settled, but the strong ethical position is to monitor sites on their terms. If you need to hide your identity or play cat-and-mouse games with site admins, you're in the wrong.

  4. Be transparent in your monitoring.
    Don't conceal your identity, through either technical or non-technical means. Your IP address should map to your company. When using an individual profile to monitor or interact on a site, disclose the individual's affiliation with either the service provider or client.

  5. Respect privacy norms in closed settings.
    Blog monitoring was ok because blogs are publicly available. If an individual login is required and community norms are that information is to be kept within a community, don't use it. These sites create an expectation of personal privacy that should be respected.

  6. Don't overburden servers with automated requests.
    Sites exist to serve their users, or to reach an audience, or to conduct business. Manage your data collection activities to minimize negative impacts on servers.

  7. Where multiple codes of ethics may apply, observe the more restrictive code.
    Existing codes from other fields may impose extra requirements that still apply. For example, entering a community to observe it is ethnography, which has its own ethical standards.

  8. Be honest with clients.
    Don't make promises that your technology can't keep or present insights that aren't supported by the data. If the client wants something you can't do, admit it. If they want something you won't do (or shouldn't), educate them. As Converseon's list suggests, your ethics protect them, too.

  9. Don't freak out the natives.
    It's not good for your business, anyway. The more people think of what you do as creepy, the more likely you are to face regulatory pressure or other challenges. Besides, it's not nice.
I've already heard from an industry insider who's concerned about the potential impact of others' privacy violations on his business. He's right to be concerned. Credit card companies and credit bureaus have assembled vast databases from information that consumers can't control. We can be freaked out about it, but we can't do anything about it. Scare enough people about what happens with their information in social media, though, and they could stop using social media altogether (unlike consumer credit).

Do we need an industry standard?
Incidents like the one in yesterday's WSJ, and the attitudes exhibited in some of the quotes in the article, increase the likelihood of government intervention and externally imposed rules. Who'd rather create a clear and relevant ethical standard for the listening business before that happens?

I've already heard that this topic is too sensitive for an open discussion online. If you want to pursue this, let me know, and we can decide on the right venue.

Today's Wall Street Journal had Twitter abuzz about social media monitoring and privacy in closed communities ('Scrapers' Dig Deep for Data on Web). Specifically, a health discussion board and a social media analysis vendor using individual accounts to access personally identifiable health information. It's obviously an ethical question, but whose ethics apply? As far as I can tell? Nobody's (yet).

People are sharing personal stuff online, sometimes sharing more than they realize. We need to be careful about how we handle this information, but from what I can see, the ethical standards are just as siloed as the measurement standards. People brought along whatever ethics they subscribed to before they started dealing with social media, but the existing standards don't really cover the new activities.

Think about the different functional roles where you might find companies using social media data:

  • Market research
    Market researchers have strong ethical standards that come from social science research. They get into things like informed consent, but does that really apply to data mining of publicly available data? Do they apply if the data is aggregated, and no personally identifiable information is preserved? What ethical standards apply to desk research?

    Jeffrey Henning wrote about the etiquette of eavesdropping and presented a webinar on consumer attitudes towards social media market research. The short version is that people persist in expecting privacy in their online conversations, despite the public nature of the forums they use. But does their expectation of privacy online translate into an ethical obligation for researchers?

    Update: IMRO and CASRO guidelines may apply to social media research.

  • Public relations
    PR ethics say a lot of being honest and transparent in public statements, representing the client and the profession well… but what about the ethics of monitoring and measurement? A recent discussion of ethics in PR measurement suggests that that conversation has only just begun.

  • Marketing
    WOMMA takes strong positions on its members' marketing activities, but the closest it comes to mentioning monitoring or research is when it commits to "promote an environment of trust between the consumer and marketer." Other marketing codes I found had a similar emphasis on outbound marketing over inbound information collection.

    Update: WOMMA also calls for members to "respect the rights of any online or offline communications venue (such as a web site, blog, discussion forum, traditional media, and live setting) to create and enforce its own rules as it sees fit."

  • Customer service
    Is customer service sufficiently organized as a discipline to have its own code of ethics, or does it simply inherit the company's overall standards? I'll bet you that any existing ethics deal with one-on-one interactions with customers.

  • Human resources
    HR ethics related to personal information are based on information that companies aren't supposed to use in hiring decisions. danah boyd shared some thoughts on regulating the use of social media data in hiring.

  • Strategy/intelligence
    SCIP's code of ethics doesn't commit to much more than obeying the law. Other types of intelligence organizations get some leeway even on that. If you don't want competitors spying on you, your only real defense is to learn about INFOSEC.
Bottom line? I haven't seen an existing code of ethics that applies to monitoring, measuring, or mining social media sources. If you wanted to apply an existing standard, you'd have to decide which one. So, how do you pick? Are the rules determined by:

  • The source of the data?
  • What you do with it?
  • The job title/professional affiliation of the user? What if the labels themselves lack agreed definitions?
  • No ethics, just laws?
  • Nothing—there are no rules?
I have some ideas, which I'll share tomorrow. But first, what do you think? Is there an existing standard that you apply? How did you pick it?

Update: Is it time for Ethical Standards for Listening Vendors?


Photo by Thomas Hawk.

Bruce Schneier's taxonomy of social networking data (via Tim Finin) provides a helpful starting point for thinking about the various ways that personal information finds its way online.

Tell Me Your Metrics...


...and I'll tell you what your job is. Especially if you tell me "how to measure social media."

Measurement silos are alive and well, and the measurement cliques they foster are working hard to perfect their craft. They're coming up with increasingly sophisticated measurement approaches and tools for measuring social media. The unintended secret is that the metrics and objectives they embed in their work are designed for the needs of specific functional roles, and that's not usually stated.

31 flavors with the same name
Have I told you the story about the unspoken modifiers of marketing? Think about all of the subspecialties within marketing. Unless you work in a small company, marketing tends to be divided into more specific roles.

As a product manager and product marketing manager at large technology companies, I worked with product marketing, marketing communications, channel marketing, field marketing, event marketing, promotions… I didn't even know the corporate marketing people who did the high-level branding, advertising, and PR.

Later, an outbound telemarketing manager at another company asked me if I had done "marketing," and I said yes. But when she said "marketing," she meant direct marketing for lead generation—email blasts that would feed the call center. The modifiers that she applied to marketing were unspoken, but they were crucial to understanding what she meant. We were using the same word to mean entirely different things.

Measurement is the same. When people tell you how to measure social media, they're telling you what they are responsible for measuring—what they're responsible for doing.

You don't see what you don't look for
You may believe that you can't manage what you don't measure. I'd like to add that you don't measure what you don't manage (why would you?). But how does that work when the world changes and the old boundaries blur? When the same channels are used for PR, branding, promotions, and customer service (to name a few), whose metrics do you use? How do you measure one environment for multiple objectives?

So far, the answer seems to be that old ways of measuring create blinders that we take to new situations. So the web analytics club, the PR measurement club, the WOM club, the customer service club, and the BI club are all meeting after school to define social media metrics. Their definitions are based on their job responsibilities, but they aren't labelled that way.

Moving up a level
At an individual level, you measure what you're trying to manage, for all the right reasons. At a company level, you measure all of it, and you look for ways to use what you learn here to make improvements there. Companies aren't supposed to be limited by one function's objectives, but that's how we're talking about measurement.

If you're trying to measure social media, don't be limited by what you've used before. Think and, not or, and look around for useful tools, strategies, and metrics that have developed in adjacent silos. That other measurement club is doing good work, and they just may have the tool you're looking for.

Photo by Jonathan Cohen.

About Nathan Gilliatt

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  • Voracious learner and explorer. Analyst tracking technologies and markets in intelligence, analytics and social media. Advisor to buyers, sellers and investors. Writing my next book.
  • Principal, Social Target
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