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by Kenneth Rudich
Series begins here: Part 1
A high profile social media fail often generates enough fireworks to make a collage about it. We know this, in part, because we at marketing-strategy-management.com have already accumulated a sufficient number of collages (like the one above) to start a digital quilt, if that was something we wanted to do.
Unfortunately, these high flying examples are just a microcosm of what’s occurring on a bigger scale. Their number is small, almost negligible, as compared to the larger quantity of lesser publicized fails that crop up daily in wave after wave of tweets, posts and comments. In many ways, these entries are far more sinister, because they typically fly below the radar of public scrutiny but nonetheless chip away, little by little by little, at the common civility a society needs for basic survival. Their cumulative effect is what makes it imperative to have an ongoing dialogue about emotional intelligence in social media.
For our purpose in this series, we’re going to loosely define social media as any device or platform that facilitates interaction in the digital world.
The Social Media Woo Factor
Social media presents a unique testing ground for emotional intelligence. It may not have started out with this objective in mind, but it’s turned into one by virtue of how it’s been built and designed.
One outstanding feat in the marketing of these technologies – what makes them unlike any that came before — is the remarkable degree to which they’ve been endowed with embraceable, even humanizing qualities.
This began to first take shape around the time the cell phone turned from novelty item into constant companion. It didn’t take long for the marketplace to demonstrate, through rapid adoption, a fervent desire for the freedom and access a mobile phone could provide. It was somewhat reminiscent of the demand that erupted with the mass production of the automobile in the industrial age (where a sense of freedom and access was likewise afforded). One big difference, however, is that mass production no longer provides a competitive edge from a marketing standpoint, certainly not like it did back then. Because it’s easy for others to duplicate, it’s been replaced instead with a belief that the path to carving out a differential advantage must pass through mass customization.
As the earlier version cell phones evolved into smart devices, marketers focused on the coveted Holy Grail of mass customization. New features either improved performance or enabled personalization — anything else was essentially pointless. Apps, for instance, allow owners to configure their devices however they want. The aim is to encourage an even stronger sense of emotional attachment. It sets the stage for merging the role of constant companion with personal assistant.
The architects of social media, meanwhile, were equally astute. Not only did they afford opportunities for networking, but they fashioned an atmosphere for mimicking a real world social setting as best as they could. Concepts like “friends,” “follow” and “like” — to name a few of their many psychological triggers — became a means for conditioning users to embrace the illusion of a “friends and family” mindset. It transformed what could have been a sterile and uninviting environment into a welcoming atmosphere. The wooing of users with these incentives nourished the response they were hoping to get.
So now we have a constant companion, a personal assistant and a social portal all melded together. The net-effect has spawned a digital world brimming with people inclined to freely offer their thoughts, their feelings, their reactions, their pictures, their videos and more. Indeed, social media, along with its supporting technologies, has so thoroughly eased itself into so many lives that it presently assumes a second nature status for a goodly number of them. Consider, for instance, the seamless switching back and forth between the real world and the digital one that, in most cases, is taken for granted. Some users even make it appear as though it’s become an involuntary reflex action.
The Anatomy of a Social Media Fail
While all these achievements merit credit as a substantial marketing feat, they also should be recognized for giving birth to a grand social experiment. Think of it this way: If someone had sought to create a set of conditions that are especially ripe for testing emotional intelligence as discussed in Part 2 of this series, this would be it. Not only that, but it’s unprecedented in scale, scope and transparency. On one hand, it indulges every inclination we might have for using it. On the other, it mirrors back a candid view of ourselves and our society.
Let’s start by acknowledging that a vast number of people do exhibit emotional intelligence while using these technologies. What’s perhaps unfortunate is that we tend not to notice this so much because it doesn’t seize our attention, at least not like the behaviors that strike us as rude, outrageous or offensive. When civility prevails, it’s easy to just go with the flow.
At the same time, let’s also own up to the reality that a portion of the population does not exhibit nearly enough emotional intelligence with social media. What’s more, social media can be surprisingly deceptive, inasmuch as it has an uncanny knack for getting all types of users, regardless of background or breeding, to let down their guard long enough to act out, engage in poor judgment, or commit a foolish indiscretion, often without even realizing it – at least, not at the moment it’s done.
If and when such trouble occurs, it usually originates with someone losing sight of one or more of the three key characteristics that make this environment stand apart from any other we deal with on a regular basis. They are: the concept of a Digital Footprint, Impulse Management, and Social Media Temperament. Let’s briefly look at each.
The Digital Footprint
The digital footprint covers time and place as it pertains to using these technologies. Both of these can be tricky to negotiate, which is why emotional intelligence gets pressed into action.
Place begins with the real world context a person is in while using their device and then extends onward into the digital world. This characterization recognizes the device as rooted in one world while serving as a gateway to the other. Each world, then, is distinctly separate in its own right, but together they form a footprint.
One aspect of footprint mindfulness involves the ability to distinguish between private space and public space. Private space is yours and yours alone, where your actions won’t inappropriately distract or anguish another. Public space is shared with others. The concern here revolves around the practice of showing a thoughtful regard, respect and courtesy for the group as a whole.
When a private space overlaps or intersects with a public space, the default responsibility is to treat it like a public space. So, for instance, if someone is on their device in a place or context that defies the general expectation they’ll refrain from using it, then it’s a fail.
Real World Boundaries
In the real world part of the digital footprint, the boundaries for private and public space are usually physical in nature and fixed in time. Though one might expect these features make it easy to separate the two, and then act accordingly, human idiosyncrasies have been known to intervene and subsequently garble the thought process. Examples include, but are not limited to, talking on the phone or texting while operating a vehicle on public streets and highways, texting or talking in a movie theater, or in church during mass, or on an airplane.
Even if you think you’re engaging the device in a manner that’s socially acceptable, like before a movie starts, bear in mind the other patrons don’t know if you’ll have the sense to quit once the movie (or the previews) begins — after all, you’ve already violated the implicit expectation to refrain from using it at all. When their sense of temporary refuge from the outside world gets disturbed like this — which, btw, counteracts the very appeal of the movie theater experience — it’s not surprising they find it intrusive and that they’d rather not have had to deal with it.
Perhaps nothing better illustrates the absurdities that can arise over a disagreement about space than this comment from a former paramedic, which appeared under a news story about an EMT unit:
“I was a paramedic for 18 years. I kept hearing about how firefighters and police officers save lives, but not a thing about EMTs.
On September 12, 2001, I responded to two calls with my volunteer departments — one a car fire with my fire department, and the other a shortness of breath call with my volunteer squad. On the way back from the fire in a fire truck, every single person I passed except one waved at me. During the entire ambulance run, only one person waved. With one finger. Apparently, she didn’t like the siren interrupting her cell phone call.”
Digital World Boundaries
In the digital world, the boundaries between private and public space are anything but concrete. Nobody knows for certain if, when or how something might be shared, gain traction or go viral. Except for transactions that explicitly promise contractual privacy, it’s advisable to regard all other online activity as occurring in a public space.
Also be aware that audience diversity is likely to broaden as the size of the audience grows. What may not offend in a small group setting, or among a core of like-minded folks, may draw criticism on a bigger scale. What some may view as mildly amusing, others may want to publicly exploit. Where some may show respect, others may not be as kind. As visibility increases, so do viewpoints, perspectives, beliefs, values and behaviors.
Time in the digital world is about the shelf-life of the footprint. Everyone would be well-advised to assume whatever they do in the digital world will have an extended shelf-life from the moment it gets entered.
Be especially wary of anything that can come back to haunt you long after you’ve forgotten about it. Consider, for instance, how the three tweets at the outset of this series went viral despite being deleted or the account having been closed. Similarly, think about how many crimes have been solved (or partially solved) by tracking the cell phone pings after the fact; or how old emails in the New Jersey Governor’s office uncovered evidence of questionable deeds with respect to the George Washington Bridge; or how often people lose out on getting a new job due to something they’ve done in the digital world.
Never underestimate the potential impact of the digital footprint.
Impulse management or impulse control is about the capacity to save oneself from doing something spur of the moment that may — or predictably will — cause regret later on. This becomes increasingly critical as the stakes get higher or the potential consequences get bigger.
Some people are better than others at doing this. They can delay their reaction to the urge for a hasty response or a quick but unsuitable fix. They remain grounded when others get swept up in the moment. They consciously choose between going with an impulse or ignoring it. Because they can rely on their judgment in the face of being put to this kind of a test, they’re able to reduce the odds for encountering unwanted results or unforeseen circumstances.
Other people struggle with checking themselves. The reasons differ. Some get ridiculously excited when chafed, which makes them prone to experience what Dr. Goleman calls an “emotional hijacking.” Others employ social media in such an absent-minded sort of manner (like an involuntary reflex) they end up producing something like a stream of consciousness – wholly unedited and consistently real. And finally, some people frankly don’t care how their actions impact others.
The emotionally intelligent individual will recognize that social media not only accommodates spontaneity, but downright invites it. Insta-everything is the ultimate end game of the industry. It makes it attractive, but also potentially dangerous.
Examples of impetuous behavior include those who feel compelled to immediately respond to a text even though it may be ill-advised, like while driving or in a movie theater. People who always insist on publishing the first thing that comes to mind, the moment it comes to mind; folks that vent before they’ve given themselves a chance to cool off; and people who incessantly push their agenda eventhough it might be the wrong time, place or context to do it.
Anyone who has trouble with impulse control will attest it’s difficult to marshal. The first step, from an emotional intelligence standpoint, is self-awareness – acknowledging it, and then making an honest assessment to evaluate if you need to work on it.
Social Media Temperament
Social media temperament is about the vibe a user gives off. This vibe is the keystone to emotional intelligence on social media. It determines whether a triggering of the previous two characteristics will shake out in a favorable or unfavorable light. The mere fact that these other two characteristics exist, looming nearby with all the potential power they carry, makes it only wise to pay conscious attention to whether the vibe you give off is the one you intend.
Of course, someone with a consistently good vibe can readily afford to lack impulse control or have their submission go viral. At the same time, it’s unlikely such a person would have a problem with impulse control, because the ability to consistently give off a good vibe usually speaks well about their emotional intelligence and the facility they have for impulse control. The same cannot be said in the case of a bad vibe.
Virtually every tweet, post and comment conveys a vibe. Consider the handful of comments below, which were taken from the hundreds submitted for a breaking news story about a Catholic priest killed in a California church rectory. At the time of the report, no motive had been established, and no other details about the crime, crime scene or suspect(s) had been divulged.
As you peruse these, notice the distinctly unique vibe of each comment. Also pay attention to how the varying levels of emotional intelligence affect the narrative of what’s supposed to be a discussion about the story.
Comment #1: At least he was trying to preach about something a little bit better or beyond Earth.
Comment #2: No, he was just brainwashing idiots like you to believe something that is outrageously stupid.
Comment #3: I love how people like you come here and troll for stories they can use to belittle others. The only time you’re going to find out if it’s outrageously stupid is when you die. Then maybe you can have the last laugh, so to speak. Until then, people like you cry out for freedom of speech, but only if it’s something YOU believe in. Otherwise, it must be stupid. What you need to do is grow up and realize that people believe all sorts of different things, religious or otherwise. What a dull, boring world it would be if people were all like you. And sad. Go spray your hate elsewhere.
Comment #4: _______’s comment was no different than anyone else on here. All speculation, like always on here when all the facts are not reported as yet. Of course 80% of the comments on here are not about the article, but to ridicule and call others names. I’m surprised no one has blamed Obama or called someone a libturd or commie socialist yet. Would love to see posters stay on the topic instead of trolling just to piss others off. HAPPY NEW YEAR.
Comment #5: A guy was killed in a cowardly way and all you people can do is bash people that choose to believe in god?
Comment #6: My condolences to those who have lost a person they cared about. I hope they catch the person who did the crime, I hope they learn the “why” of the crime and I hope justice will be served.
Look folks…that was so easy for me to “say”….no griping, no mudslinging, no hate speech, no religion or Atheist bashing, no political crap….just an expression of sorrow that a person was killed and that other people lost someone they cared about, a hope that the FACTS will be known and the person will be caught and punished appropriately. EASY PEASY…didn’t hurt a bit.
Comment #7: A little respect and dignity goes a long way in this world, and it costs nothing.
In the final analysis, a bad vibe is a social media fail no matter what else happens to it. For instance, the only difference between comments like, “No, he was just brainwashing idiots like you to believe something that is outrageously stupid,” and a tweets like “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” is that one managed to avert the unpleasant consequence of going viral…this time.
A common theme among all the fails featured in this series is that each had a bad vibe, each was impulse driven, and each overlooked the concept of a digital footprint. Based on this anecdotal evidence, we’re going to suggest a probable correlation between emotional intelligence and the odds for committing a social media fail. As shown in the graphic above, the odds for a fail decrease as emotional intelligence increases.
Perhaps the secret to emotional intelligence on social media begins and ends with understanding one simple idea: it’s possible to post whatever you want, for any purpose, without being disagreeable.
To that end, consider the exchange below. It contains a “here’s how I feel about it” moment followed by “I hear what you’re saying but don’t agree” response.
Comment #1: I’m filled with hate for a sick, twisted church that would protect child molesters from justice and put innocent children in harm’s way. I’m also filled with hate for all the priests that, while not molesting children themselves, stood by their ‘brothers’ at the cost of countless children’s innocence.
Comment #2: Dude, I understand your anger and hatred at people that abuse children, I really do. But your anger is misplaced. The children are the first victims here, and the guilty individuals should be locked in jail for the rest of time, priest or not. But the second victims here are the rest of the good priests out there – to condemn every single one because they “stood up for their brothers” is probably the dumbest thing I have seen on this thread (and there have been quite a few dumb things). I know several priests and soon-to-be priests, and absolutely NONE of them are okay with what happened nor do they stand up for them. Generalizing just makes your posts lose credibility, just from the outside looking in.
Come back for Part 4. We’ll explore how these social media fails can impact society, individuals, and employers (things like productivity, brand reputation, quality of worker output). Equally important, we’ll look at measures that can be taken within all three of these groups for trying to prevent social media fails; and, to the extent possible, for creating a buffer to lessen your vulnerability as a victim of collateral damage from a social media fail.