Big Ideas ALA Executive Director’s Letter

Navigating the Murky Waters of Social Media

On November 30, 2007, I joined Facebook. At the time, I used it mostly to keep up with the few friends I knew who were on it.

Oliver Yandle, JD, CAE

I didn’t post much — actually, I didn’t post at all. Aside from adding friends and updating my profile, most of my activity was limited to commenting on other people’s posts. My first status update came nearly two years later: “Had a great weekend in the city.” Pure poetry.

Since then, I’ve become a lot more active on Facebook, along with 2.7 billion other people. It’s a wonderful tool to connect with friends and family, learn about new things and share experiences. I’ve spent way too much time watching cooking demonstrations, laughing babies and funny animals. My husband, Jeff, also enjoys the animal posts, but often finds himself in a puddle of tears watching hours of pet rescue videos.

But for all its virtues, Facebook and other social media platforms have their downsides. One night a few years ago, Jeff and I were on the couch. I was watching TV, while he was casually scrolling his newsfeed. Every so often I would hear a loud laugh (Me: “What are you watching?” Him: “A talking cow!”), and an occasional sob (Me: “Why do you torture yourself? The dog lives and gets adopted by a great family. The dog is OK; I watched it for you.”). A few minutes later, he got quiet. Then he started muttering, and finally started yelling at his phone.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“This ‘friend’ from high school is on a rant, “ Jeff replied. “He’s saying the most ridiculous things and his feed is blowing up. Look at what he’s posting! Can you believe that?”

These platforms are so integrated into our daily lives and it’s likely they aren’t going away. Having a well-defined social media policy and ensuring employees understand it is essential.

The posts were very political and, in some cases, hurtful. Jeff immediately began banging away at a response to a particularly pointed message.

As he was typing, I looked at him and said, ”Kittens and puppies. Kittens and puppies.” Our shorthand for, “Do you really want to post this?” As tempting as it might have been to respond, we both knew that it wasn’t going to change his “friend’s” mind and it wouldn’t make Jeff feel any better. Better to go back to the talking cow videos.

There have been many times when I have been surprised, disturbed or shocked by what people are willing to post on social media. While it is certainly an outlet for self-expression and free speech, there are plenty of examples of how social media can cause significant damage to one’s personal reputation, and even end one’s career, if not used carefully.

You may remember Justine Sacco’s insensitive tweets about AIDS just before getting on a plane to South Africa. By the time she got there a few hours later, the PR company she worked for had fired her and her reputation was in tatters. Then there is the legendary “Cisco Fatty” incident when 22-year-old Connor Riley shared this tweet: “Cisco just offered me a job! Now I have to weigh the utility of a fatty paycheck against the daily commute to San Jose and hating the work.” Someone at Cisco got the tweet and shared it with the hiring manager. Conner does not work at Cisco, as you might imagine. And there are countless other stories of drunken photos, racist and homophobic tweets, and posts complaining about jobs leading to losing those jobs.

This month’s cover story provides great insight into how legal organizations should navigate this murky social media world. In addition to advice on crafting social media policies, it also provides guidance on training employees on using social media. These platforms are so integrated into our daily lives and it’s likely they aren’t going away. Having a well-defined social media policy and ensuring employees understand it is essential.

Social media gives us an opportunity to connect with the world and create a permanent record of our lives. But it also comes with a price — every post, picture, retweet is there forever. Which is why when I am tempted to post, my first thought is always, “Kittens and puppies. Kittens and puppies.”