In her book The Joy of Missing Out, Finding Balance in a Wired World, author Christina Crook poses the question: “What are people for?” She poses it in the context of online relationships and whether or not we see other people simply as consumers. Her book is thought-provoking and challenges us to think about whether the arms-length nature of digital communications is removing us from meaningful engagement and ultimately, what it means to be human.
Her insights are timely. As the digital and social media space becomes more crowded, we are forced to ask ourselves what are the ethical, social and cultural norms that will govern our behavior online? Where are the boundaries?
Most of us in the field adhere to a core set of principles grounded in transparency and authenticity, and teach businesses and individuals we work with to apply fundamentally the same social ‘rules’ and etiquettes online as we’d apply offline. What’s different in business is that we are not used to this level of transparency.
Social media has heralded not only a new way to communicate, but also a very different way to do business. A tension is emerging around the application of traditional business tactics in this new medium.
Recently, a crop of tactics have emerged on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram that could be considered ethically dubious, or at least inauthentic. In short form, we call it friend- or social-poaching. A familiar term from junior high school days, but with potentially more serious implications than hurt feelings or social exclusion when it comes to business.
Essentially, it is a Friends-of-Friends strategy to gain more likes, fans and followers to increase access to potential market and grow email contact lists. It involves monitoring the feeds of influential friends and strategically liking and commenting in online conversations followed by a direct friend request. Usually a canned or packaged invitation is sent via a private message to your personal profile or business page asking for more direct engagement. Largely, these interactions are initiated solely for the purpose of eventually making a sale.
It’s a kind of network marketing that can be very effective. But is it right? Many in the field don’t endorse this tactic as a way of building relationships online. It takes advantage of genuine trust and real relationships built on shared personal or professional interests.
Given the power and reach of digital ecosystems, not only are friends vulnerable, but so are hard-earned business contacts, particularly those that happen to be friends, too. Because your social media feed is the point of introduction, you essentially become complicit in reducing your friends to the status of consumers.
According to Ronald Sharp, a professor at Vassar, “… social poaching stems from an inappropriate or distorted view of what friendship is. It views friendship as a zero-sum game, or as an attempt to maximize your resources. It converts the natural generosity of friendship into a kind of investment.”
Me, I’m in favour of an abundance of generosity, along with openness, trust and transparency, and I prefer not to reduce friends and clients to simply fans and followers. Which brings us full circle to the question we must ask ourselves, in this wired world: What are people for?