December 14, 2008...5:05 pm

The Tao of Social Media

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“Those who have no compassion have no wisdom. Knowledge, yes; cleverness, maybe; wisdom, no. A clever mind is not a heart. Knowledge doesn’t really care. Wisdom does.”

The Tao of Pooh


There was some recent controversy over whether a blogger’s disclosure as it pertains to professional affiliation is enough to garner trust with his or her readers.

In this case, the blogger happened to be Chris Brogan, one of the most respected and celebrated thought leaders in the social media space; a guy who devotes most of his time and talent to helping businesses and individuals like me understand and integrate social media into their communication strategies.

For more background on the controversy, read Chris’ post in response to the criticism or Amber Naslund’s very thoughtful reaction post on the sanctity of social media.

There has been a lot of back-and-forth discussion on whether paid-for posts are ethical or not, but I think this misses the larger point.

My comment on Chris’ post summarizes my position on this issue:

You [Chris] did absolutely nothing wrong. In fact, you lived up to your own guidelines that you’ve established as your own best practices. We should all have that much integrity.

What I find most disturbing lately, is this tendency to be overly dogmatic about social media. Dogma related to “journalistic” ethics and blanket policies (drawing a line in the sand) that trump personal relationships are leftovers from an old media culture based on a professional filter.

For consumers to filter their information through a professional filter, established guidelines written by someone in authority needed to be present. This is no longer the case. People can define their experience with businesses and individuals through a personal filter, or a social filter. The social filter is much more powerful and meaningful than the professional filter ever was. This notion, in theory, SHOULD be liberating.

The interesting thing to me is that with this newfound freedom to define things like ethics and best practices in terms of personal, individual evaluation, people go back to clamoring for the old blanket policies. Can’t we do any better than that? Besides, I thought we were all making this up as we went along.

Social media changes the rules

Understanding the fact that social media is inherently game changing with respect to business and communication, and understanding the implications of this fact. are two very different things.

The old rules and old media treated us like children. They told us that we could not navigate tricky situations based on relationships and case-by-case evaluations of business and personal endeavors.

They kept business and personal relationships separate. They told us that we needed distant experts to guide our thinking on everything from household products to political theory. They told us that we could not be objective if we also profited from our endeavors.

Phrases like “conflict of interest” and even “slippery slope” were invented to give us the sense that without rules, ethics, dogma, we would have no order, no integrity, no trust. They did our thinking for us.

Institutions of authority crafted and enforced the rules, ethics and guidelines that were supposedly decided upon with everyone’s best interest in mind, but they were always really about preserving the institutions they served.

This notion of elevating the institution above the human is why we have so many grey areas in any real-world practical application of these types of rules.

The grand philosophical difference is that to use social media tools effectively, the human being becomes more important than the institution. Through this new type of communication, the individual experience becomes more important, or at least as important as the institution or the brand.

The way of the Tao

I understand I may be getting a little too esoteric for some people to stay with me on this, but I really do think this is important. I can’t help but think that social media offers a new opportunity to be unencumbered by the old dogmas.

The ancient wisdom of the Tao teaches that we can achieve a more holistic and dynamic conception of the world through personal experience and compassion rather than a static worldview dependent on fictitious absolutes.

I am not endorsing acting without integrity, but I am endorsing reliance on the personal. The old ways taught us that we were either incapable or lacked the time to make sound decisions based on our own experience. They taught us we need rules in order to behave with the interest of others at heart or to consider the greater good.

Honest disclosure is almost always enough to foster trust in any relationship. What more do we really need from one another?

I think we have all experienced or witnessed an episode in our lives where the applicable rules may have been clever and intelligent, but ultimately lacked compassion and wisdom.

For the first time in a very long time in our evolution, social media tools offer us the opportunity to inject wisdom into the way we share information and engage in commerce.

It seems to me that the old rules have done little to foster compassion, understanding and community, but have done an excellent job of creating conflict and division.

Am I naive to believe that these new tools offer the potential for something greater than the purveyors of the old rules could have ever envisioned or even permitted?

We already know that the old rules don’t apply, so how can we help each other along this path toward something better?

Photo by FelipeArte

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  • Shannon, I wish you could see me standing up and clapping wildly. You have such a talent for getting to the heart of the matter and opening up dialog that challenges us to dig and think deeper. Old media relied on rules as a form of control. If we do X consumers will do Y. This new world is nothing but unknowns and I imagine that scares some people silly. Rather than rules and dependable formulas we are now “forced” to engage on a regular basis and to be prepared that whatever we create from products and services to experiences is to some degree left to the individual user to define.

  • @Karen, I wish I could see that, too! I’m sure you’re right: people are afraid. I’m afraid, too, but I hate to see people retreating into the old ways that do more to divide us than to bring us together. The kind words of support mean a lot coming from you. Thanks so much.

  • Really interesting post – and one that adds a lot to the topic. Wish I’d read it before leaving my own comments on some of the other sites writing about Chris/Izea/K-Mart.

    As an ex-staff journalist, and sometime freelance journalist at the moment, I’ve been acutely aware of the tendency to expect all blogs to conform to the ehtical rules applied to traditional news journalists (which aren’t always followed!)

    I think for those of us in this space, the personal filter is incredibly useful in allowing us to decide who we follow and why, and what may or may not be appropriate… I think for those who may have come across a blog without building a personal relationship, an outline of a basic policy and disclosure etc is incredibly useful, but we shouldn’t insist on trying to harangue individuals into conforming to our own belief of what their writing, blogging or policies should be.

  • @Dan, Thank you. I think you raise a good point. For those new to a blog, it may be beneficial to outline a basic disclosure policy without trying to harangue everyone into conforming to what works best for us.

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  • Ah, Shannon. What a treasure you are for managing to say things that I can’t manage to articulate.

    These ideas of an almighty truth run completely counter to a community-driven form of communication where individual rules are possible and even preferable. It’s about shaping individual experiences that, when combined, form a big super-cool collective and diverse whole.

    “Full disclosure” and “integrity” in and of themselves are subjective terms. The line is different for everyone. The beauty of social media, however, is that each individual can decide for themselves what that means, and make their choices accordingly. It’s a liberating thing, to me. As Lisa Hoffman so deftly said, “who made you boss of the interwebs?” :)

    Thank you, as always, for beautifully articulating your eternally insightful perspectives. I always, always learn from you.

  • Shannon, you have hit the nail on the head. It’s time people understood what makes social media work is that it’s that we are giving control back to the readers. We’re breaking down the rules that say there’s central control of everything.

    That’s why we do things the old media wouldn’t dare do: hyperlink to sources. Write directly from the heart. Not hide personal biases. And best of all, not be afraid to start a real discussion. Thanks for doing so.

  • Shannon,

    No other way to say this…this is brilliant. Your ability to take in information, both objective and emotional, and patiently process it with a keen eye on the big picture is incredible.

    My sense is that it is extremely easy to apply black and white rules when judging another’s actions, but we often tend to allow ourselves to operate in a gray area. Most of the time, this isn’t done intentionally or maliciously. We know our own intent and have the full context; things we often lack when looking at what someone else is doing. We all use social media in different ways with different objectives in mind. To judge another’s use of it as measured against how I think I’d use it only yields conclusions based on assumptions.

    As someone raised in the era of rules, I can see all sides, but excitedly embrace the move to community driven objectives. Voices like yours challenge my thinking and enhance my learning every day.

  • It still makes me laugh how right the Cluetrain Manifesto was with its subtitle “the end of business as usual” and how we’re still wrestling with fundamental shift of the Internet. I appreciate your thoughts on the holistic perspective and think that’s what will get us to a better understanding we need.

    Thanks for your comments about my blog post ( tonight. I’m glad this weekend allowed for a civil discourse (for some) on a most important topic


  • Allright now, Shannon…you’re really starting to scare me here…

    You mean…you’re not just a hockey chick?


    Seriously though, that was absolutely brilliant and spot-on!

    You’ve just procured yourself a new reader…

  • Shannon,

    I’ll get the ass-kissing out of the way. Eloquent, insightful, stimulating and supple. A well-crafted mosaic of prose.

    I think you’re basically right about the fundamental differences between the old medium and the new media.

    In this media, for the most part, full disclosure covers most of the ethical ground. Not always, but mostly.

    The rules based on Short Head along the chanels of Mass Communication certainly produced certain ethical standards which may need to be updated/overthrown in the Age of Mass Connection.

    As far as Taoist considerations, I suppose some Alan Watts is in order (I’m not a marketing/PR guy (I passed differential equations and organic chemistry :) ) but I can offer pass along an outsiders glance at the inflection point in marketing history in which we now stand.

    Last Century was about the Fully Automatic Model: you could invest huge dollars in mass communication, broadcast your messages and game the system in your favor. But if the model broke, you were pretty much doomed. Too big to change.

    This century will be about an Organic Model: you can invest fewer dollars in smaller enterprises, word-of-mouth your messages and ramp up your investments of a longer-term toward a stable, successful enterprise. If you fail, you have a chance at revamping and fine-tuning your strategies.

    As far as ethics, some things are eternal: conflicts of interest will always be a problem; integrity of passion will always be a struggle; and honesty in the face of temptation will remain a bedrock of the trust needed to sustain markets in a transparent society.

    The essence of the Tao is this: ‘become what you are’. The essence of the Tao of New Marketing is this: ‘be remarkable, in truth as much as in transaction.’

    Burn the incense and read Lao Tsu, Shannon.

    @Phil Baumann

  • Catherine Ford (@15MinutesADay on Twitter)

    I really enjoyed your post! The changes that are coming to society with the implementation of Web 2.0 and the social media tools that accompany it are going to shake things up in a big way. Thanks for sharing! I have subscribed to your blog and look forward to reading your future posts! Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  • I think it depends, very much on the culture you live in as “opposed” to say, the culture you subscribe to. ;)

  • @Amber, we definitely have a mutual admiration society party in our future. I’ve come to count on you so much for helping me develop my own thoughts.

    @Mike, I think you’re right to point out the deconstruction of any kind of central control. A lot of people are going to lament this sort of thing and attempt to enforce the rules in a de facto manner, which is what I think we saw happening this weekend. I just hope we can continue to reassure one another that we can operate with respect even when there is no central authority threatening us with recourse if we do not.

    @Irene, thank you for the kind words. I agree that imposing black and white rules is always easier than adhering to them. Great point and thanks so much for adding to the discussion!

    @ScottyHendo, Thank you for the comment. So many things about the Cluetrain Manifesto have been spot on. Understanding the ripple effects of so much change is something we’ll probably be dealing with for quite some time.

    @AJ, Thanks for making me smile. :) I’m glad you’re not disappointed to learn the truth about me — not just a hockey chick for sure.

    @philbaumann A fair amount of ass kissing on your end would be appropriate as well. I haven’t done a very good job of telling you how much I admire you, but I do. Truly.

    I love, “be remarkable, in truth as much as in transaction”. It’s also funny you mention Alan Watts, I was listening to some old recordings of his lectures a few weeks back and I started thinking about a lot of the things that made it into this post.

    Thanks for adding to the inspiration. Lao Tzu here I come. ;)

    @Catherine, Thank YOU for reading and adding your thoughts. I look forward to learning more about you, too.

    @originbear You may be right. Although, I like to think that I subscribe to the culture I live in. I try to rededicate myself to the pursuit of reality as much as possible. ;)

  • One of the better posts I’ve read in awhile. Trying to learn as we navigate these unchartered waters can be scary. We’re going to make mistakes along the way but we must not stop trying. Thank you for articulating these thoughts so brillantly. You’ve raised your own bar, I’m sure you’re up for the challange.

  • One of the better posts I’ve read in awhile. Trying to learn as we navigate these unchartered waters can be scary. We’re going to make mistakes along the way but we must not stop trying. Thank you for articulating these thoughts so brillantly. You’ve raised your own bar, I’m sure you’re up for the challange.

  • I love the Tao angle. Very much what I want to believe. I am an optimist after all.

    However, from some of my graduate studies I have seen the power of communication used to abuse, to persuade, to convince, to believe, to not believe, to hurt and even to kill (think terrorist group here).

    There is a human element in all of this. There ARE people who will abuse the system.

    There are ethical considerations when bloggers and so called “experts” wield their magic wand. Social media is gaining in power – the power of relationships. Some of these relationships are based on gossip, hate and things I don’t even like to think about.

    Many people today still do not understand critical thinking and are used to being spoon fed information without questioning the source or the intent.

    How do we begin to navigate these waters? I am not sure but I do know that the power of the people swelled up to defend Chris. Almost in a knee jerk fashion. I think full disclosure is great and Chris did his part to do that.

    However, I also believe that the true freedom of speech is empowering a conversation around an idea – which you are doing and I think that is the true power in communication.

    Just because I don’t always agree in the rhetoric of Motrin Moms, Chris Brogan or you doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a voice at the table or that I won’t listen intently to see where I can find a bridge.

    There will be some who live by the “old rules” and find value in that. And there will be some who make up the rules as they go along and may lead to newer understandings. There is much to learn from the past and much to gain from an open mind.

  • This resonated with me for two reasons.

    1. I’ve always been a bog fan of the Tao of Pooh.
    2. I’ve tried very hard to stay on the path. Recently, it’s my frustration with others that don’t get that leads me astray.

    Thanks for the ability to Reblog!

  • Amen, sista! Well said.

    I just wish I had been online earlier this weekend to have said it first. :-)

    I’ve woken up Monday morning to find the social media world all atwitter about Chris’s post. And I am reminded of a country and western song that has the very Tao of Pooh line: “you say it best…when you say nothing at all.”

    So I’m removing myself from the conversation on this topic, as it’s one that I just feel is not worth having.

    Great post, Shannon. I always enjoy reading your blog.

  • So, what happens when they turn off the internet for three weeks due to some national disaster? Or when blogs/tweets are extensively monitored by government (presume they are already monitored generally) for “wrongthink” or disclosures of politically unacceptable activities such as homeschooling, firearms ownership, political organizing? George Orwell, call your office.

  • Great post Shannon, but I’m still trying to sort through it all; and I was right there when it went down. Kind of like, “what just happened?” or “what is happening here”. And I agree with 99.9% of what everyone is saying but… I keep coming back to the fact that maybe what bothers people the most is that Chris was and is our social media leader, and disclosure aside, maybe they felt betrayed? Maybe they felt as if he “sold out”? And perhaps that is because almost of all of Chris’s posts are helpful, insightful, non-product-ized pieces. Maybe this one struck a chord because it so went against the grain of what Chris is to everyone?

    I want to understand what the thinking was for “them”. Hell, I’m still trying to figure out who the them was? And to be really honest here, them was Jeremiah and Ted Murphy and myself to a degree just thinking out loud early Saturday morning. It was the most bizarre fire storm I’ve ever seen.

    It brings up some great talking points and there is a lot to learn here but I suppose when you really get down to it, it just might be that the celebrity has decided to start making some money and some people had a problem with that and the fact that it might have been Kmart? I don’t know. Betrayal? Dissapointment? Angst? Anger?

    But if we want to start worrying about people getting paid, then damn…some people have got issues then, that neither I nor Chris, nor you or Amber or whomever, can help them with.

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  • Shonali Burke, ABC


    Aren’t you a little young for such perspicacious wisdom? ;-)

    Seriously – I love what you wrote, and how you wrote it. We get too easily caught up in the “how” and “wherefore” of business and especially (I think) business communications. It’s high time we started remembering the “why” – and the answer, at least for me, is people and relationships. At the end of the day, that’s what it comes down to – that’s why something works (or doesn’t). Bravo for reminding us of that.


  • Of course old rules apply. Standards such as slander, libel, ethics, morality, etiquette aren’t going anywhere but more vogue.

    That said, I applaud your holistic website experience.

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  • Melanie Thompson

    What I find interesting about this whole thing is that one of the most beloved bloggers / Twitters is under attack. So often I deal with clients who are unwilling to jump into social media because they are afraid of the negative. Here is a perfect example that no one is immune from criticism. It is part of the name of the game. Will Chris make it out of this whole mess unscathed? Looks like it. His reputation precedes him and those of us who have found value in his posts and comments remain loyal to him. This is how social media works. Some people have problems with you, they comment, others comment back and the dialogue continues. That is what makes it great. Everyone has a say, and at the end of the day, each person gets to make his / her own opinion.

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  • @Melanie & @Beverly have very valid points and concerns.

    Although Social Media – i.e. the human – can be viewed as ‘pure’ and without filters, it still comes down to the human.
    This means pure bias, pure alternate motives, and pure emotion – all can easily stray from fact.

    However realize a simple but strong fact: we are in the embryonic stage of social media.
    The more we ‘re-learn’ our new communication forums and forget the rules of the past, the more accountable social media will become.

    Being a former journalist, I’ve always looked at accountability as a cornerstone of communications. Accountability from those you ‘cover’, and self-accountability in the story you are delivery. It’s a rule many are unwilling to let go (at least the naturally-skeptical journalistic/critic types).

    So where is the accountability in Social Media?
    Here’s the good part: as the number of people join and learn how to use our new form of communication, the accountability will come from the collective group (an ever-growing number).

    Person A says they hate something, but persons B through Z say otherwise…who are you to believe?
    @Melanie put it well in reminding us about the personal choice we have in believing what we choose to. As time goes on, the growth in Social Media will allow us to make better (possibly more informed) decisions.

    I’m still slightly skeptical…but I’m more than willing to give it some time.

    Shannon, thanks for making me think. You’ve got another follower.


    • Tom – Thanks for the comment. I agree that Melanie and Beverly (and all of us) are right to be concerned, but I think bloggers, as well as individuals and businesses that engage in other forms of social media are often held accountable. However, rather than being accountable to boards or ethics committees, they’re called out — and quickly! Think about the Motrin Moms or even the example with Chris in this post. Journalists were always backed by the media outlets they were working for — at least when it came to public scrutiny. These media outlets had lawyers to protect their employees. The only things a blogger has is his/her relationships with their readers/community and their good name. I believe the impetus for accountability is still there when our relationships are based on trust.

  • Wow! You really are clear. You’re right the old rules kept business and personal separate. In so many ways we have lived a fragmented approach to life and to business. Not only was it unhealthy for all of us living it, but now the old rules are totally unable to compete with REAL people once they are enabled by social media.

  • Shannon,

    I agree with you on the fundamentals and agree with fellow commentators that this post was well written.

    As a preface, I want to say I think Chris Brogan did nothing wrong and all I could ask of him is to disclose what is permissible. But that is part of the social contract he has made of his own volition.

    @Tom I agree that the larger the and more diverse the community the better equipped it is to guide us where there is no rule book. The concept is basic statistics. The more participants, the better the representation of what is “socially acceptable” will be.
    My issues with this idea are as follows 1)what makes social media different is that it is completely opt-in (a lot like FOX News or MSNBC) the audience tends to reflect the speaker (and vice-versa). Many blogs speak to a certain type of person and caters to a certain ideology, whether it be professional, spiritual or philosophical. So the audience of a blog may never be as broad as a daily newspaper. I think this may also be an issue in respect to the online-community’s holding bloggers accountable. If the specific publication is more narrow there will never be a balancing factor because it will be outside the scope of different-minded readers
    2)I don’t think you, Shannon, were arguing for a cohesive, group-think type of ethical standard. I think you are saying that if everyone individually thinks of the community they should make the best decision possible, more of a global-community idea.

    @Beverly I am also concerned as to whether the general public is prepared to make the transition and as social media is growing and easily navigated trying to bridge the gap is important.

    In order to feel betrayed an individual must feel a contract has been breached, stated or otherwise.

    I’m curious as to your opinion of a social contract for bloggers. Traditional journalists have a social contract to cover “news” objectively. PR practitioners’ contract asks for ethics above all else, by being honest and honoring their understood agreements with not only their employer but also the publics that they communicate with.

    If every blogger makes their own ethical decisions without openly explaining the contract they will be honoring can anyone in an audience evaluate their trustworthiness?

    If there is no “blanket” I feel their MUST be some pre-stated standard that by subscribing or reading you agree to holding that blogger to their own standards.

    Without rules their can be no order. I feel many people can wax-poetic about individual standards, but cannot live in the context. Community-driven ideals are beautiful but we are human and everyone does not have the same moral compass or the ability to live, what you or I, may considered a virtuous life. Its why we have government institutions, sometimes they fail, but they are typically better than if we were without.

    I hope didn’t repeat anyone else’s thoughts.

    Thanks! Reading you is always a pleasure :0)

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