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.