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.

How Social Media can make your company money

This is a repost of a comment I left on Tamsen McMahon and Amber Naslunds amazing blog BrassTackThinking.  I highly recommend checking out anything these two write.

When thinking about how best to “convert” the business-minded folks over to recognizing the value of making themselves present via social channels, I often think in terms of “how can I make them see that what they’re doing isn’t all of what they could be or should be doing”, and its a frustration to me that a lot of really smart, well-thought-out posts on assorted blogs will really only be read, digested and used by people who “already get it” on some level.

In order to “reach” the rest of them, I often think a post entitled “how social media will make you money” would be hugely popular. I don’t think many of us (myself included) are as strong at “leading a horse to water” as we need to be.

Perhaps its our own stubbornness and unwillingness to maybe be influenced by those more sales-focused minds and opinions that get in our way?

Every interaction between two people leaves both a little changed, but when we talk about bringing people to our side of the fence, we rarely consider how close we need to get to the fence ourselves in order to have that conversation.

Maybe we do ourselves a disservice in this way?

What are we willing to take on and learn from “the other side” in order to bring balance?

On Authority: We don’t have it when we think we do.

Judge using his gavelIn this business, we all talk a lot about authenticity, transparency, engagement.  I’ve seen a ton of blog posts, tweets, and whitepapers that say “corporations are no longer in control”. We focus on the new meaning of influence.  This is all well and good, they’re conversations that need to be had, and they are admirable goals that can in fact map to business ROI.

We still make assumptions, though. There are still some old habits we continue to believe to be true. One of the biggest things I’ve been noticing people falling back on when interacting, especially on behalf of a larger organization is speaking from a position of authority.

Authority is one of those nebulous positions that seems to have more to do with our own self-image than about any particular knowledge.

For me, the most appropriate definition for Authority in this context is the typically inaccurate assumption that a given person or organization’s content has inherent merit based on its source, rather than on its actual value to the community.

We all still fall into this trap sometimes. Our blogs are full of posts about the great things we (and the companies we work for) do, we create sweepstakes (read: bribes) built around using a particular product, we try to tell people what to think and what to do. At this point however, it’s not a safe bet to make any assumptions about the authority your voice carries within community. A few of the reasons what we say often doesn’t have the sway we think it does are:

  • We have not built a trusted relationship within our community. You work for the company that makes the product? That’s great. So what? What have you done that would demonstrate to me that I should take what you say about your product seriously? As my friend Jason Falls says over at SocialMediaExplorer, “The trust you build is largely dependent upon the ability to convince them your intent is pure.” If you are the representative of a company, by definition your intent is to sell me on something, which tweaks the bullshit detectors in many of us.
  • We as consumers trust users more than creators. Say you’re a member of a cooking community. Which person would influence your engagement more: The Communications Director for All-Clad, or Bobby Flay? The truth is, unless you’re in a tiny micro-niche industry, there are other more publicly visible experts on your product than you. This already puts you in second place for ‘entity with authority’.
  • Assuming authority without earning the role of trusted advisor from the ground up makes us come off as obnoxious. Instead, (and here’s where the social media nerd comes out) start by listening, and then become a person-sized learning atom within the community.

All of this is hard for us to process. The loop of “We made it, of course we know best, don’t be silly.” is hard to break. For me, I’ve noticed that underneath stuff like that is fear.  There is a fear and insecurity that “if we don’t talk about ourselves, nobody else will have a reason to either”

I’m here to say that I don’t think this is true anymore, and that not always having to be authoritative takes a lot of the tension and strain out of our day.It frees us to lean forward, engage, learn, connect.

Interestingly, that may also be how we build up true credibility in the conversation, as decided by others around us.


Life happens whether you pay attention or not.

People will talk about you, some will say nice things, some will complain.

Life Lessons from Ferris BuellerConversations will happen that you could be a part of, that you could bring value to.

Someone out there wants to hear from you. Someone out there wants to make a connection.

This will happen online and offline, with friends and strangers.

You can choose not to pay attention, but all this will continue regardless, and all you will be is alone and suffering.

Isn’t it better to listen?  Just for a little while?

What’s the best that could happen?

Recognizing and embracing true value: How do we address fear?

When we talk about values we enjoy when it comes to people, things that often come up are kindness, approachability, warmth, humor, a connection and openness to others and the world around them (often described as ‘lighting up a room’), and a willingness to include those around them in whatever is going on. These are pretty globally attractive characteristics, and those who display them are frequently well-loved and respected wherever they go.


Scared (Photo credit: Melissa Segal)

In business, however, I feel as though there is a disconnect from embracing these same values. Kindness becomes weakness.There is a fear that making your business approachable will somehow lead to being taken advantage of by customers (or worse yet, ignored). People are afraid that being open to others will lead to competitors stealing their ideas, or that somehow the company will be ‘exposed’ as less than it claims, and that will lead to something drastic.


These insecurities are quite human and understandable, when we’ve been taught in business (and in our personal lives) that we must portray an image of a secure, independent and successful entity who is not reliant on anyone at all times, or risk losing social status.

What we’re coming to understand is that ‘projecting an image’ is a sure way for people to want to keep their distance. I’m sure everyone reading this knows at least someone who may be a good person underneath, but could commonly be described as someone who ‘tries too hard’ or is ‘always on’. When you think about your reaction to that person, it’s probably something approaching pity, rather than an honest inclination to connect, engage and have a valuable exchange with that person. I’m sure everyone can think of companies (and in fact entire industry trends) that are trapped in fear.

The interesting thing about the world we live in is that those entities are brought into stark relief, as more and more places are embracing a new value of openness, and finding that success follows shortly thereafter. More importantly (I think), the public nature of these interactions allows for people to share in those successes. As follower counts grow for companies that embrace openness like JetBlue, Zappos, Starbucks, they are finding that their goals are being cheered on by the public. People actually want these companies to make money. This would be so far removed from reality even ten years ago as to be absurd.

So, how can we work with companies rooted in fear to open them up to the opportunities? I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I would imagine it begins by showing them the effectiveness of a more human approach, and talking out their fears with them. As with anything in life, the antidote to fear is love and compassion. To those change agents among us, are you approaching your clients this way, to address, alleviate and walk them through their fears? If not, it might be an interesting exercise.