Negative Online Behavior is a Product of Culture, Not Your Social Media Tools: What I'm Learning from the Work Literacy Course
One of the questions I'm most frequently asked when talking to people about using social media for learning in organizations is how do you "manage" comments and how do you deal with people "being negative." There's a general fear that once you open the floodgates to participation, you're going to be inundated with people acting inappropriately and unprofessionally.
Although I think this is a fair question I think that 1) it says more about the organization than its employees and 2) my experiences have not borne out the idea that using blogs, wikis, and social networks is an invitation to unrestrained nastiness or anarchy--unless that's the culture in which your employees are already operating.
Now that we're winding down the Work Literacy course, I can see one more example that offers additional insight into this issue.
Over the past 5 weeks, we've had almost 3,000 unique visitors to the community. As of today, 749 people from around the world created profiles, wrote on each others walls, "friended" each other and sent private messages. Sixty forum threads have been started with hundreds of replies. Forty five blog posts have been posted to the network and countless others have been posted on people's personal blogs outside of the Ning. We've created a Work Literacy wiki and set up a Delicious tag where people were invited to contribute their links. Seventeen videos/presentations and 34 photos have been added to the site. Four groups have formed and they are having their own active discussions through forums and on wikis they've created outside the space. We've also held two "live" events online.
I've personally read through just about every forum and blog post, except for those written in a language other than English. I've also visited many members' profiles and checked out the photos and videos. Despite all this activity, nowhere in any of this has there been an "inappropriate" or unprofessional exchange. That's right. I haven't received a single complaint from a participant about "bad behavior" nor have I seen anything myself. That's saying something, especially when you consider that these people are essentially strangers to one another and could behave inappropriately with no real ramifications.
Now why this is the case. Is it because I just haven't seen anything? I doubt it. I think that with this many members, if there was some kind of problem, we'd know about it.
Is it because participation is voluntary? Maybe. That would certainly contribute to an overall sense of positive participation if you know you're doing this because you want to, not because someone told you you had to. But just because participation is voluntary doesn't mean that people won't break out into flame wars, etc. Look at TRDEV.
Is it something about how we've framed discussions and the fact that positive culture begets positive culture--that is, people are modeling for each other what is considered to be acceptable behavior in the community so anything different would be incredibly jarring? Is it because we're showing respect for each other as a community and not assuming that people will behave inappropriately? Definitely. I don't think that there's the space for negative or unprofessional behavior at Work Literacy because everyone who is participating is a professional and is committed to creating a particular kind of learning environment. Further, as facilitators, Tony, Harold and I didn't expected anything different. We just assumed that we were all here to learn, so how could we find the best ways to do that?
Here's a story about the community culture that has developed that further illustrates my point. One member of the community was clearly there to sell a product. To the extent that he participated, via a few forum discussions and sponsorship of a webinar, it was to push his own agenda.
When I saw how this person was interacting, I was at first tempted to say something, especially when he posted an event to do a webinar on his product. But then I decided not to do anything about it. I wanted to see what would happen. Maybe people were OK with what he was doing and were interested in what he was selling. I figured that if someone complained about it to me, then we'd deal with it, but as an experiment, I was curious to see how things would play out.
What happened was this. People totally ignored him. No one signed up for the webinar. No one responded to his discussions. They simply didn't engage. And as a result, he became a non-entity on the site.
Now that may sound harsh, but I think it's a great example of the positive self-policing quality of these communities. When people behave in "inappropriate" ways, the community members often handle it themselves. In this case, a member "selling" something is relatively innocuous behavior, so ignoring it is the best approach, which is what they did. I suspect that if something more overt had happened, they would have shown equal wisdom in how to handle it. This kind of behavior is what I've seen repeatedly and the Work Literacy project is just one more example.
This is the conclusion I'm drawing from using social media for learning. If people have negative experiences with using social media in their organizations--if people are behaving unprofessionally or inappropriately--I think that there's something a lot deeper going on that social media is simply bringing to the surface.
I think you're right to question "will I get negative comments on a blog" or "what happens if people say bad things about our organization on our social network?" Those are good solid questions and you should have a plan for dealing with them.
However, unprofessional behavior does not arise in a vacuum. It's a product of organizational culture. Social media will make that culture visible, so when you ask "will people vandalize our wiki?" what you're really asking is something about the quality of your organization's culture.
Now, you could let your fear of negativity hold you back from implementing the tools, or you could decide to dive in and see what happens. You may be pleasantly surprised (which is more often the case). Or you may unleash a storm of problems. If the storm is released, however, it might be the best thing that could have happened for you. You've been fortunate enough to find out exactly where the pain is in your organization so that you can begin talking about how to address it.
Saying "We won't do a blog because our employees will leave negative comments" is simply saying that you don't want to know what people are already saying. Because believe me, if they're going to be negative on a blog, which is a public forum, you can only imagine what they're saying behind your back.
The other thing I'm realizing as I continue to participate in and manage these social media-enhanced learning events is that, if anything, social media brings out the best in people. There is an inherent sense of sharing, transparency and community that these tools can build that I've seen over and over again. Yes, in the wrong hands you can have some serious problems. But those problems existed before you started using the tools. If you really want to address what's happening in your organization, I'd suggest that you actually delve into the positive uses of social media because they may give you one of the best opportunities for ongoing dialogue and problem-solving that you'll ever see.
I agree with your comments. It is a reflection of the culture. Of course, even with a good culture in place there will always be the stray negative person every once and a while. But I see an occasional negative comment as a good thing because it gives the company an opportunity to address the negativity and often that results in more employee satisfaction in the long run.
Posted by: Jonathan S. | October 31, 2008 at 03:15 PM
Kia ora Michele!
An interesting perspective here in your post.
While its seems much like semantics, the terms 'appropriate' and 'negative' do tend to have a fair degree of subjectivity associated with them.
I recall an occasion when I was on a team building exercise with the Training and Development Unit that I worked in at that time. We had all agreed to follow consensus on issues.
I spoke up and was applauded for bringing to the forum the idea that we should first define exactly what consensus meant. It was not an easy discussion that followed. But we eventually agreed to define it in terms similar to, "agreeing to 'go along with' the team on an issue".
Eventually we began to attack our agenda and the first item brought us round in another long discussion over matters that were of a fiercely moral nature.
I disagreed with the majority but agreed that the consensus should be followed in the subsequent courses of action in the team.
During the next discussion, I stated that though I did not agree with the issue I was willing to follow democratically. Whereupon two members halted the conversation by pointing out that the team had agreed to follow consensus.
I fell about laughing. That didn't go down too well either, for I was seen to be flippant and 'negative'. My immediate reaction was to firmly state that though I agreed to follow consensus on issues, I certainly was not going to change my opinion on these matters. That was tantamount to being brainwashed and was not respecting my right to have an opinion.
Later that week, my manager spoke with me about the Corporate scene, referring to the matter to do with consensus and my clear stance that following consensus did not mean following opinion.
It was then that I realised how naive I could be.
It was quite naive of me to think that there should be any difference between having an opinion and agreeing to follow action by consensus based on the differing opinion of the group. To this day I have never been able to rationalise that. Not even in terms of it being in a corporate environment.
When it comes to matters where being 'negative' is an issue, I always quote Carl Sagan's Baloney Detection Kit.
Is it really being 'negative'? Or is it just that there is a difference of two perfectly respectable and valid opinions, where one person is willing to state the opinion and the other is unwilling to accept it?
Posted by: Ken Allan | November 01, 2008 at 05:15 AM
Hi Jonathan--I agree with you that some negative comments in an online community are not a bad thing. They definitely give you an opportunity to understand some issues you might not otherwise receive feedback on. Which actually leads to Ken's comment. . .
Ken, you make a good point about that"inappropriate" or "unprofessional" are subjective terms and that often you can have genuine disagreement about ideas that some would call "inappropriate," or "inappropriate for this forum."
What would be nice is if people could have some meta-conversations about how they're defining inappropriate online behavior within an organization, as that would lead to some learning about what is/isn't discussed. It's the rare organization that can do this, but if you could push through, it seems there would be tremendous value in it.
Posted by: Michele Martin | November 01, 2008 at 08:51 AM
Excellent post Michele. During the last four years working with students online I have only come across one inappropriate episode. It was an error of judgement on the student's part and the moment was resolved. You are quite right, when issues do surface in a community it is symptomatic of deeper issues.
I am amazed by the quality of the exchanges I have witnessed whilst blogging and communicating with other educators. Cheers, John.
Posted by: John Larkin | November 02, 2008 at 03:15 AM
John, I suspect that the student's error in judgment was actually a great learning opportunity, too. If we're ready for these things, I find that social media can actually create some great teachable moments that allow us to deepen our understanding of each other and ourselves in the context of community and learning.
Posted by: Michele Martin | November 05, 2008 at 08:50 AM
Excellent read!!I think its a reflection of the culture.If Positive peoples are found then we will find negative peoples too,but considering negative peoples once a while, will help the company for its better growth.
Posted by: Rathna | November 06, 2008 at 10:04 AM
Quite correct Michele. The students and others connected to the event did learn a great deal. It actually forged new bonds that were most productive. The student has gone on to be an excellent photographer.
Posted by: John Larkin | November 06, 2008 at 01:58 PM
So true. If it wasn't goofing off using these tools it would be something else, probably more covert.
This is a hiring problem, not a tool problem.
Posted by: Kevin Jones | November 06, 2008 at 02:04 PM
In hindsight, I was deterred by internet communities, because I didn't like the ease at which people could flame each other. When I discovered wiki in 2002, it was exciting, because people in the wikis I was involved in, used their real names and were constructive. I personally think that the technology/philosophy of an online tool plays into the dynamics also.
Posted by: Mark | November 15, 2008 at 01:26 PM
Excellent insights. I think one of the key things with the WL ning community vs. an open community like FaceBook or MySpace is not that it voluntary (they all are), but that it is focused and populated by people who have similar interests, if not similar opinions on those interests. (Ka kite's discussion of opinion and consensus is great as well.)
Unfortunately, to people not familiar with using these social networking tools within a community, for a specific purpose, the random ramblings on the well known "public" communities are all they know about social networking.
Posted by: Brett | November 19, 2008 at 11:55 AM
Excellent post, Michelle, and I think you're right on the money. People will demonstrate the same cultural tendencies online as they do off-line - only perhaps more so. Rude people remain rude. Pushy people remain pushy. Arrogant people remain arrogant. Kind people do not suddenly turn into vicious harpies. Encouraging people do not suddenly turn negative and destructive. In fact, I have often wondered if someone were to read the pseudonymous contributions of someone they know, whether they would recognise that person.
I know Janet Clarey says she is shy in person and assertive online, but I suspect that her assertive online self, still observes the social mores established by her shyer physical self.
Posted by: Karyn Romeis | December 01, 2008 at 12:41 PM
Excellent post Michele!!I personally think that if we're ready to make use of great learning opportunity,i am sure that our social media will help us buy creating some great teachable moments which inturn helps us to understand each other and ourselves better in relation to the community and learning.
Posted by: Rathna | December 15, 2008 at 01:45 AM