Socializing the Revolution

Events taking place on the streets of Tehran may have an important effect on how social networking rolls out across the rest of the world, and that includes the CRM world. Last week, the media began carrying stories about a “cyber revolution” that may be happening in the Islamic Republic, but those stories fail to account for the whole story — the yin and yang of social media.

We tend to think about social media as unalloyed goods because they have benign and possibly beneficial outcomes, but our thinking is clouded by one important point: The social media environment is literally a free-for-all. Any tool, including social media, can be used for good or not-so-good purposes, as we have learned repeatedly.

Much was made about the U.S. State Department asking Twitter to delay taking its system down for maintenance until night time in Iran so that the microblogging site could continue its role in support of protesters. But who said that only the good guys were using this Internet tool?

It might only be 1388 on the Muslim calendar, but the government and many religious schools have reportedly been into modern Internet communications — including blogging — since 2006. The New York Times also weighed in on the significance of social media on Sunday.

Regardless of your thoughts about the government in Iran, it has been a party to all of the twittering and blogging and video-sharing that we in the West have used to trumpet the benefits of social media.

Under One Virtual Roof

It may be highly ironic, but both sides in the dispute about the recent Iranian presidential elections are part of the same communities. The students might be able to blog about a crackdown or upload some video, but the authorities can use the information to identify people in the videos — individual bloggers and tweeters — with the result that they can arrest them and shut down dissent. The revolution may be televised, but the live or near-instantaneous feeds we get in the West can come at an increasingly steep cost to the participants.

I think the connection with CRM is clear. No, you don’t have to worry about big brother coming down on you in the U.S. — at least, not yet — but the example of Tehran and the existence of social media monitoring and management technologies for business purposes should give us all pause. I repeat, it is a free-for-all out there, and social media are adding some zip to the situation.

It might be good for all of us to consider a code of conduct for using these powerful tools, at least in our business lives. Unlike many similar codes that are designed to protect others, a social media code of conduct would have powerful benefits for the people generating content. It would serve as a personal reminder that the Internet is an increasingly dangerous place — and as in any dangerous place, we must have our wits about us whenever we venture forth.

Look Both Ways

Some parts of the code might be obvious, like performing a bit of fact-checking before redistributing third-party content, or refraining from certain activities because they may have unpredictable consequences. We can’t be perfect about predicting the future, of course, but just as we instinctively avoid say, spitting into the wind, we need to develop instincts regarding the combination of cellphone cameras, alcohol and business meetings — just for starters.

Other instincts might be commonsensical, but they may not have been figured out yet. For example, how often do you perform an Internet search on yourself or your company or your corporate officers? Do you know what the rest of the world is saying about you? If you are in corporate marketing or have high-level responsibilities, you might consider instituting a policy.

Finally, what information about your company is confidential, and how much of it is being put out on the Internet in the normal course of business? Even if you think you run a tight ship, your job postings offer unique insight into staff turnover and product development.

I am trying to be careful not to refer to any of this as the “downside” of social media, because none of this is inherently part of the technology. We are witnessing the moment when we discover just how powerful a new technology is, and it is sobering. Social media bring new capabilities to all of us. The hard part now will be to domesticate it — to first, do no evil.

Denis Pombriant is the managing principal of the Beagle Research Group, a CRM market research firm and consultancy. Pombriant’s research concentrates on evolving product ideas and emerging companies in the sales, marketing and call center disciplines. His research is freely distributed through a blog and Web site. He is working on a book and can be reached at [email protected].

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