On integrity, and the corrupting influence of business.

[for @jasonmoriber]

Cover of
Cover of You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto

I’ve been reading Jaron Lanier’s brilliant “You Are Not a Gadget“, in which a large section is devoted to pointing out the many dangers of Web 2.0, mainly the fact that we are engineering, coding, and socializing ourselves to be generic ‘worker ants’ in service to an imagined ‘cloud of information’, rather than using new technologies for true individual, weird, unique expression of our humanity.

You ever read a book that scratches an itch you didn’t know you had?   I’ve long had beef with the “Social Media Community”s appropriation (and necessary corruption) of communication to achieve business goals (no matter how much ‘business wants to be more human!’ crowing happens), but I don’t feel like I’ve ever been able to articulate my fear, squickiness and discomfort with the industry that has cropped up, and the discussion that is happening around ‘what should business do with the internet’.

Jaron has managed to hit on many of the points I have in my head but have not committed to text.  Facebook, Twitter, et al remove all of our individual expression and we cheerfully attempt to self-define through a pre-selected collection of ‘what do you like’ drop downs  and ‘about me’ text boxes.  We happily accept that the entity with all the control, power, and agency are in fact advertisers, the very ‘big business’ we all claim to demand have less influence over what goes on in our world, the same places we get outraged by when we find out they pay 0 taxes and screw workers.

Something that he doesn’t touch on (more because its outside the purview of the overall point he’s making) is that business as a construct has no particular adherence to integrity.  We anthropomorphize companies in our minds, via Twitter avatars, via our laws.  Internally, however, although they may be staffed by many ‘good people’ who only have the best intentions, business as a construct arcs toward profitability and specifically routes around integrity the closer it gets to profit as a motivating factor.

One need look no further than the recent (yes, this is one of the few times on the blog I will set something in time) case where Facebook hired Burson-Marsteller to smear Google on blogs.  I do not wish to go into the reasons behind Facebook choosing to make this happen, as they’re getting enough flack.  I want to look at Burson’s contemptuous, condescending, business-style response. (brilliantly parodied by the mystery folks behind Heishman-Flillard)

They could have said “we should have turned down this task when we were asked to do it. It’s good for business but bad karma, and we are better than that.  We are reviewing the process that lead to us thinking this would be okay.”

Instead they wrote the following:

The client requested that its name be withheld on the grounds that it was merely asking to bring publicly available information to light and such information could then be independently and easily replicated by any media.

It is a total abdication of any responsibility for their actions, a justification of a slimy practice that many PR folks have condemned, and makes no attempt to claim that their work, decision-making process and vetting have any integrity whatsoever.  This from a company that is the poster child for a lack of integrity.  (seriously, Rachel Maddow did an expose about them that concluded with “When evil needs PR work done, Evil has Burson-Marstellar on speed dial”.  You can watch more examples via this Maddow clip.)

This is why I cannot get excited about business on social channels.  Business presence on social channels is by nature a corrupting influence, because business has no integrity.  People may, but the nature of business is to override personal integrity with capitalist interest under the guise of self-sustainment as it grows too large for human compassion to remain the core value.

Are there exceptions? I would argue that there are, but they are rare, generally quiet about it, and the ones that are talked about (Zappos, etc) are talked about mostly in the ‘…and they’re profitable!’ way.

The quietly virtuous ones are the kinds of companies I’ve been spending the last 6 months of unemployment trying to find and be a part of.  I work with integrity, to the best of my ability.

So, anyway… Read “You are not a Gadget”. (for the sake of the article, this is not an affiliate link).

And don’t be surprised that I’m not on fucking Empire Avenue.

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heather snow

If you haven’t already, see or read The Corporation – in which the author/filmmaker argues that corporations, by virtue of their legal status and myopic focus on profits, are essentially sociopathic entities. It’ll further fuel your angst and scratch your itch.

I wish I had as optimistic an outlook as Tac. Unfortunately I’m not convinced that social media or anything else will fundamentally change the stodgy, profit-driven business mentality that you’re chafing against. I do however believe that it creates a platform for a handful of smaller companies – with their ideals and integrity and human voices intact – to get a greater share of attention. There are exceptions out there.

Jeremy Meyers

Yeah I watched part of it, could not finish, it made me mad. companies are psychopaths and they have better rights than people here.

I do hope there are exceptiosn that are content to remain exceptions even if it means they wont have 100million dollar IPOs or whatever.


 I know you said you thought this post would piss me off but it didn’t. Because I don’t disagree with you directionally. I think within the details we’ll disagree on stuff but that’s kind of what our friendship is built off of :) 

I think that “social media” is just a precursor to a broader change that is coming. It’s the tip of the iceberg. I would recommend reading Daniel Pink’s ‘Drive’ and watch this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=is44fqWInsM

Businesses that stop focusing on shareholder value and start focusing on maximizing all stakeholder value will be truly disruptive have the potential to destroy the old guard, traditional “capitalist” business. 


 Great post. I also recommend reading “You are Not a Gadget.”  Lanier is thinking way beyond today’s conventional wisdom.

Aaron Perlut

Nicely done Jeremy. You’re not only a good kisser, but a wise, altruistic mammal. 

David Patton

 I agree that businesses as organizations typically drive toward what “business” needs , even if made up of people working to do good. This is the issue with allowing businesses to be part of the political process. Many of the sf books I read paint a picture of the future where companies take over society. Everytime I worry that this will come true, a wave of people launch start-ups that challenge that idea. I do think that the rights of companies and organizations should be subsumed by the rights of people. As such, they should be second-class citizens on social media. 

Thomas Barrell

Couldn’t agree more, well said. It’s a battle I fight everyday.