Millions of people have discovered the benefits of social media. However, a few people and companies have also experienced the potential pitfalls of such mass transparency.
More than a few students have been kicked out of universities for collaborating on Bebo, hi5, Facebook, MySpace and the like for assigned individual school projects. It's old news that potential employers haven't hired some people purely because of inappropriate content or associations on their MySpace pages.
Or, how about the teachers who have been asked to step down for their overtly sexual content within the social networks. There's also the famous Jeff Jarvis blog post about Dell's inadequate customer service.
So what does this all mean? Are social networks so powerful to cause an adjustment in personal and corporate behavior on a macro level? You bet your camera phone they are.
The 20-something now thinks twice about getting so drunk that they black out and can't remember how they wound up in the hammock of a stranger's back yard. Cameras document everything, and new technologies like Facebook's Mobile Upload and "tagging" can disseminate a naked keg stand to your network faster than you can count to five.
Preventative vs. Braggadocian Behavior
Two distinct forms of behavior have emerged in this new age. The first one is preventative, e.g., you may hide the alcoholic drink in your hand behind your back, or you may not take that photo with the two waitresses on your next business trip. A person will check hourly for photos in which they are tagged to determine if they should be removed or not. Also, now that Google images are starting to show at the top of the search results, people are performing searches on themselves to make certain that picture from their fraternity party from 10 years ago isn't front and center.
Companies are starting to think harder about decisions that could cause such a negative reaction in the blogosphere. They're more willing to pay to prevent such incidents, and not worry about the cost savings. For example, an airline may decide to stop its beverage service to save millions of dollars, but ultimately won't follow through with the plan since the word of mouth aided by social tools would be far too damaging. These decisions become complex for business since, while they can quantify the $4 million in savings, it's difficult to quantify the exact value of the negative word of mouth and compare the two.
While preventative behavior is somewhat of a downer compared to the socially unaccountable freedom our parents enjoyed in the '60s, it's a good thing on the whole. It's making us adhere to the old adage "live your life as if everyone is watching." This holds true for companies as well and, as a result, the consumer benefits from better products and services.
The second, more exciting behavioral change is that of the braggadocian ilk. As people continue to Twitter, Pownce, and update their status on Facebook, it soon becomes a competition of who's doing the coolest thing. What once took place only periodically around the water cooler is now happening real-time.
Would a person rather post "I'm watching reruns of 'Sanford and Son'" or post "Just snowboarded down 'Rolex' at Steamboat and highly recommend it for those that love double diamond runs!" Over time, each of these posts contribute to the brand that is you.
As a society, this is a good thing. It allows people to take stock of their collective lives and what they're doing periodically throughout the day, rather than letting years go by and looking back upon a wasted youth and saying "what did I do with my life?"
Is there any wonder why the television audience is shrinking by the minute? People are actually living their own lives rather than watching others.
Two Scoops of Rocky Road for Twitter
Or, if you're using, say Twitter, for business connections, who is Twittering the most valuable postings and content and in return getting the most people to "follow" them on Twitter? Some of the more popular people on Twitter have tens of thousands of people following them. The savviest of businesses are starting to use these forums as well to inform their most loyal of customers of upcoming updates, product launches, special coupons, etc.
Companies can even put in alerts for when their brand name comes up within "Tweets." A small ice cream parlor with a few stores in Georgia took advantage of this. They had a few grand openings for their newly renovated stores. A few people tweeted about the free ice cream giveaway, but they also tweeted about the long lines that were mainly the result of the employees having a difficult time scooping out the hard packed and frozen ice cream at the bottom of the drums. This company responded to these Tweets with a message of their own:From our great customer feedback we have realized that we should raise the height of our platform stands so that a) the ice cream is easier to view by our customers b) it is easier for us to scoop it out and get you our delicious ice cream quicker! We've also ordered new scoopers that utilize the power of the sun (green friendly) and stay warm so they slice through the ice cream faster. We will have these scoopers in all of our stores tomorrow and our new policy is that if you wait for more than five minutes the ice cream is on us!
Their store traffic was double what it was the day they gave away free ice cream. Yes, they received more traffic the following days when people had to pay for the ice cream. Oh, and nobody waited more than five minutes to receive their Rocky Road.
The question isn't, "Will social media change personal and business behavior?" The question is. "By how much, and are we now on a path to Utopia?"