Thursday, October 2, 2008

A Question of Unwritten Rules

There is a scene in the movie PCU in which the lead character Droz played by Jeremy Piven says to a friend bound for a concert, “What’s this? You’re wearing the shirt of the band you’re going to see? Don’t be that guy.”

We live in a world of unwritten rules. Organizations and social groups have them. Companies have them. Even institutions are defined by them.

Consider our national pastime, baseball. The game is more than balls and strikes. For instance, if one team’s pitcher hits a batter (on purpose or by accident) then a pitcher for the other team is obligated to do the same. Ironically, the sport has so many meaningful unwritten rules that Baseball Digest actually researched and published a book on the subject.

The practice of media relations – a cornerstone of most PR campaigns – is also defined by its unwritten rules. How (and when) to contact a journalist? What publications should only be pitched an exclusive? Why to never say your company has no competitors? An understanding of the guidelines to engage with journalists is what separates true professionals from the also-rans.

Now we come to social media and the shadowy rules that guide interaction in the blogosphere, through social networks and in other online forums. Again, there’s a lot at stake as failure to abide will result in an individual being ostracized, as well as damage to their company’s brand.

There are a couple of guidelines which are universal:

1. Participate in the discussion before trying to shape it
2. Identify who you are and any affiliations that color your opinion
3. Always provide content of value or risk being tagged a spammer

Yet, there are other possible unwritten rules which have yet to be uniformly adopted. Here are a few examples:

-If someone follows me on Twitter, is it an insult to not follow them?
-If I exchange messages with a contact in LinkedIn or Facebook, is it appropriate for me to then phone them at their office?
-When writing content for a social network managed by a publication like Fast Company or Business Week, can I reference an article from a competitive magazine?

What do you think? Also, are there other unwritten rules that are now accepted as gospel?


Deb said...

I appreciate this posting since,as a sales person, I have been struggling how best to establish my event marketing expertise in this new world. I consider this untapped space, but have not been sure of the rules, so I will watch comments closely. I would welcome recommendations for books or blogs on the subject.

Santos Almeida said...

Indeed we live in a world of unwritten rules. Most, make part of of what we call Common Sense. Throughout the times several thinkers from Aristotle to G. E. Moore approached this subject. I have to say that they don't give any clear answers to your question. As an example, common sense tells me that if I would write content for a social network managed by a publication I shouldn't reference an article from a competitive magazine, but common sense also tells me that could be accepted for its relevance or that someone from that publication would politely call my attention if they felt uncomfortable publishing it. In my professional activity I always manage these murky situations using common sense but by rule I never stop in its first impressions.

Pamela Kramer said...

-If someone follows me on Twitter, is it an insult to not follow them? It can be. It just depends on the content of the person following you. I can tell when it is just a sales or marketing person that is selling spam. Legit followers will interact with you and you should reciprocate.
-If I exchange messages with a contact in LinkedIn or Facebook, is it appropriate for me to then phone them at their office? Not without asking them first. You shouldn't cold call.
-When writing content for a social network managed by a publication like Fast Company or Business Week, can I reference an article from a competitive magazine? Depends on if you are a freelance writer. You should be able to reference whatever you want.

Larry said...

I don't believe in the "follow you, follow me" reciprocal rule on Twitter. Unlike LinkedIn or Facebook where your connections and friends must be confirmed/accepted by the recipient, Twitter allows you to follow who you want (so long as their updates aren't private) based on relevance.

If you post interesting updates on social media topics, I may choose to follow you. But if all I post are updates on my son's soccer game, I wouldn't expect you'd want to follow me.

As for phoning your LI or FB contacts, use your best judgment and any contact preferences they have specified in their profiles. Always best to warm up the call with a personal email in advance.

Erin Fox said...

Twitter: you don't have to follow your followers, it would be a nice gesture, but as a fellow twitterer I would not be offended.

LinkedIN: I think it is acceptable to contact (via phone) people you have been engaged with. I have, but only when a phone number was provided, interest was shown and if I believe I could provide value to them.

Social media is murky. That is why I am proud to be a part of a blog networking platform that has lead the way in ethics. We offer full disclosure, so all paid sponsorships are disclosed. We are also a governing member of WOMMA.

Scott Allen said...

I agree with your universal rules -- wish more people followed them. Regarding your other examples:

-If someone follows me on Twitter, is it an insult to not follow them?

Absolutely not. Not everyone can be 50/50. If I went 50/50, for me it would become merely a distribution channel for promotion, not conversation. Some people are more creators, others are more consumers. That's been the dynamic of online communities forever -- don't expect it to be any different on Twitter.

-If I exchange messages with a contact in LinkedIn or Facebook, is it appropriate for me to then phone them at their office?

Why wouldn't it be? Making assumptions about their willingness to allocate time for the conversation might be misplaced or unrealistic, but I can't even conceive of anything that would be inappropriate about making the call.

-When writing content for a social network managed by a publication like Fast Company or Business Week, can I reference an article from a competitive magazine?

Generally, yes -- it's part of the deal if they want to have conversations out in the open. If they're compensating you, though, I would probably consider it "bad form".

Adam Lefton said...

Those who feel sighted when those who they're following on Twitter don't reciprocate should ask themselves why they're not being followed. Perhaps their postings aren't worth following?

If you've got a problem with those in your LinkedIn network calling you at work, perhaps you should ask yourself why you accepted those folks into your network in the first place.

Providing content and commentary on social networks can be tricky. My guiding principles: (1) respect the written rules that the owners of the social site have posted - if you don't agree with the rules, then simply don't post; and (2) follow the golden rule "do unto others as you would have others do unto you" - you need to balance respect for sponsors of the site with the needs of other visitors, which generally means participating in a free and open dialog. Owners of true social sites should embrace their participants and welcome references to other publications, journals and blogs because those references add to the converation.

leoC said...

There is nothing murky about online communication. The response usual demonstrates where I person is at his or hers (online) development.

Scott Allen said...

I had another thought on this, sparked by Adam's comment:

If someone doesn't reciprocate an action, or doesn't seem to view the relationship as "equally" as you do, don't take it personally. Odds are good that it's about them, not about you.

And that's not a bad thing. We all just have so many possible inputs, we have to do some filtering in order to be functional. Those of us who are prolific content producers, on top of whatever our employers or customers pay us to do, aren't going to be able to reciprocate attention equally.

You can imagine the case of a movie star or Fortune 500 CEO. Well, it's a spectrum. It's not "famous people" and "everybody else". As the level of demand for your attention increases, so does your need to filter it. It doesn't mean anything about the people you choose not to "follow" -- just that you're busy enough to have to make choices about your attention.

And really... isn't that where we all want to be???

Ray Schiel said...

"Twitter me. Twitter you." Researching a little more about the person via the Internet before reciprocating the follow may be a good start. I generally follow people who follow me initially. I'm primarily interested in Tweets that provide valuable insights or content regarding Social Media, but I don't mind the occasional off topic Tweets now and then. I love a good laugh. If it gets too spammy, I can let them know privately if i want and decide from there whether to continue following them.

Marc Hausman said...

@Deb -- check out Erin Fox's comment. She is involved with the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) at Part of their mission is to develop standards and best practices for practitioners of viral marketing and social media. They could be a helpful resource.

The rest of the comments include excellent thinking about appropriate ways to engage with others in social networks.

In particular, the thoughts on Twitter are interesting as they reinforce my belief that the foundation of social media engagement is exceptional content that engages, educates and entertains.

Many thanks to each of you for sharing!

reeneyroo said...

Mark...could there be another version of "The Rules" lurking out there in social media land?

I have to say that in my experience, it is best not to call someone on the phone from Linkedin, unless you get their permission. I was cold called twice -- both times by salespeople and I didn't much appreciate it.

As for the Twitter question, my experience with Twitter is limited, but I think you're safe in not following someone who follows you.

Nice blog, by the way.

Jijesh said...

Marc, I fully agree with you that opinions/attitudes are more easily amended when they are actively co-created .
Companies should notice the fundamental model change in the Web 2.0 space - co-creation is paramount to have relevant mindshare.

On Twitter: I agree with erin fox. I am not offended when people don't follow me. And I don't follow them unless they are relevant.

Relevancy is the key determinant. Links-to and links-from are only an indication of the relevancy. So when you link to non-relevant others you risk eroding your own cache.