By Jennifer Pittman BOULDER CREEK -- Amid all the emerging platforms for online conversations that provide accessibility to more open information and a global market reach, there is a dark side to social media that companies, individuals and lawmakers are only beginning to understand, according to Joel Postman, a Boulder Creek author, consultant and Silicon Valley corporate communications manager.
The dark side of social media, Postman said, exists in online activities where ethical and unethical behavior and legal and illegal behavior cross over.
"There are undefined areas of advertising and marketing" he said, noting particularly issues of privacy, safety and misrepresentation. "There is not anyone who understands this stuff fully yet. The law is lagging. It has just not caught up with the ways people are using social media."
Postman, who manages internal communications for Cisco and is speaking on the topic Wednesday in Palo Alto for the Intellectual Property Society, has worked on social media strategy with companies such as Seagate Technology, Fujitsu and Invivia. He currently runs Socialized, a consulting firm, from his home in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
In "SocialCorp: Social Media Goes Corporate," Postman describes a "dark underbelly" of social media where the values of old media and new media clash. A particular challenge is the blending of personal and business interactions and an undercurrent of undisclosed dynamics, such as fake postings and secret marketing alliances, that link consumers and companies in new ways and shape conversations that appear transparent. Until more demanding standards are in place, by choice or regulation, social media "is no more trustworthy than old media,' and in some cases, less so," Postman says.
Astroturfing, the practice of posting anonymous positive comments on blogs, websites and Internet communities to boost sales or devalue a competitor, is not yet well-regulated. Some cases such as anonymous derogatory postings about a competitor by Scott Mackey, the head of Whole Foods, however, did gain attention in 2007. Yelp, a popular user review site, was sued earlier this year in a class-action case alleging extortion after a small business owner in Los Angeles claimed employees offered to charge him $300 to keep negative ads off the site.
"The value of social media is this ability to be more transparent about who we are -- if we're talking about a company, to state what its true values are," said Margaret Rosas of Quiddities, a Santa Cruz-based Internet consulting firm that builds online communities for corporations and nonprofit organizations. Because companies are able to connect more with social circles, there can be an unearned trust from leveraging someone's social capital.
"Corporations are able to get into your inner circle. While my hope is that companies use it to show their authentic self, social media washing lets you present yourself as something else," Rosas said. "People are watching companies closely who are doing campaigns."
While concerns about new technology are valid, it isn't social media that triggers unethical behavior, said Eve Mayer Orsburn, chief executive officer of Dallas-based Social Media Delivered. Social media is just a new way to express the ethical code companies have already created.
"It will simply speed up that person's or organization's power ... to express that to the rest of the world," Orsburn said.
The flip side of poor online behavior in the new world is that companies who make mistakes in social media quickly pay a price, said Lisa Orrell, a Silicon Valley marketing and branding consultant who recently taught a social media workshop for Santa Cruz Chamber members.
Consumers are in control of who they follow, friend and retweet, Orrell said.
"If a company is doing something that you don't think is worthwhile, then don't be a part of it," Orrell said.
Companies, she said, should immediately address their issues for the world to see. "Smart companies are willing to put themselves out there and are willing to take a hit," she said.
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