Pro- & anti-social media companies: What they’re like

By Anne Collier

There’s anti-social behavior at the corporate level, too – especially now, in the age of increasingly social digital media. I mentioned this in my last post, but – since these (media) environmental conditions are new to all of us, including parents – maybe it would help to take a closer look….

We’ve always known that social behaviors and norms are expressed collectively by organizations as well as individuals – witness the phrase “good corporate citizen.” But in today’s social media environment, with users sharing the minutiae of their everyday lives, relationships, and activities – our lives in effect having become media companies’ product – the impact of pro- or anti-social media companies on our everyday sharing has grown exponentially (see this about today’s “living Internet”). We can afford less and less to have the companies hosting our everyday sociality and self-expression act in anti-social ways.

So what’s an anti-social media company? Basically: a company that fails to treat its users as partners in the social experiences they’re co-creating with it.

Companies like Facebook and Twitter aren’t the sole creators of their users’ experience in their services – they provide the infrastructure around content their users, not they, produce, selling advertising space against what amounts to the “content” of our lives (as my colleague Tim Lordan of the Internet Education Foundation in Washington told me once, they’re as much “like oil rigs” as media companies of the mass-media era of our childhoods). Of course, there are other co-creators of the social media experience – such as app developers and other third parties – but for some reason, probably because they add to the bottom line, it’s easier for social media companies to treat them as partners. Anti-social corporate behavior fails to treat users as partners in creating the experiences on the corporation’s site (examples of the flipside, pro-social corporate behaviors, in a minute).

Another way to look at it is that anti-social media companies benefit by participatory media without themselves practicing participatory principles. In other words, they provide new infrastructure for people power (think Tahrir Square) without in their own practices and online spaces honoring and empowering the people – their users.

So to put it positively, pro-social media companies educate and enable their users to co-create and co-maintain media experiences that benefit the users themselves as well as all the other parties to the experience – themselves, advertisers, app developers, partner sites, etc. Some examples are (please add more examples important to you in comments):

* Educating users about how safety and privacy are a shared responsibility (among users and between users and providers) in this media environment and how key they are to positive experiences in their online communities. [It’s helpful to everybody concerned when social media users are disabused of any false sense of security about companies’ ability to wholly protect users’ privacy and safety in a user-driven environment.]
* Providing features that enable users to be active participants in positive outcomes – for example, Facebook’s pioneering social reporting feature (see this)
* Sharing revenue with users when their content develops a mass following – such as YouTube’s practice of sharing ad revenue with users who’ve posted the most popular videos
* Making controls, protections, and abuse reporting tools prominent and easy to use – and being responsive to abuse reports
* Communicating transparently about how they and third parties use users’ content
* Informing users in advance of changes to the way their data’s used and – as the FTC has now required of Facebook and Google – getting their consent, or “opt-in.”
* Working with schools, law enforcement, and other institutions in ways that protect users and their civil liberties (for example Microsoft and Facebook’s PhotoDNA project)
* Creating conditions – e.g., features, education, site culture, internal and partnership policies – that support and promote good citizenship.

The biggest social media companies already engage in most of the practices above, but I think they have a ways to go systemically – throughout their organizations and throughout the industry – in 1) understanding and communicating to users that users are co-creators of and stakeholders in safe, positive experiences in their sites and communities, 2) baking that understanding into product/service features, conditions, and protections as well as user education, 3) treating their user base as a partner just as key as advertisers, app providers, etc., and 4) educating the public and government about the collaborative and participatory nature not just of social media but of privacy and protection in them.

Increasingly pro-social and pro-participatory corporate practices – ideally self-regulatory because governments still struggle to understand and properly address anti-social media – are part of the media shift we’re all experiencing. As more and more of the world’s hundreds of millions of social media users become aware of the contradiction of social media companies engaging in anti-social practices and their power as producers of the media these companies host, they will exercise their powers, with increasing impact on corporate-level social norms. To me, this is not aspirational but only logical. Does it make sense to you? Let me know!

Leave a comment