I just got back from Pubcon South and was surprised when a fellow marketer asked a question about certain tactics utilized on Twitter being blackhat, whitehat, and grayhat. The question surprised me firstly because it was a historically SEO adjective being applied to social media, and secondly because I am not sure there are even ethics in relation to Twitter, a service that is a little over two years old.

Before you start spitting your coffee in rage, I understand that if someone breaks the terms of service of a social community they are seen as having soiled the ethical code of that small society. But the reality, the same as it is with search, is that not everyone is held to the same ethical standards.

Googles webmaster guidelines of course tell us:

Don't create multiple pages, subdomains, or domains with substantially duplicate content.

Meaning, keep from scraping content and polluting the web with the same content someone has already hosted. They feel this practice devalues the content on the web and the user experience. Of course in the end a search engine crawler is simply scraping content, and a search engine is simply publishing that content for the end user. Dont believe me? What would happen if every site in the world excluded Googles crawl tomorrow? Ethics here are being determined by those with the most leverage in the relationship.
The same goes for social media.

Recently I took a look at some of the recommendations made by Twitter in their Twitter Rules.

Impersonation: You may not impersonate others through the Twitter service in a manner that does or is intended to mislead, confuse, or deceive others

Serial Accounts: You may not create serial accounts for disruptive or abusive purposes.

Spam: You may not use the Twitter service for the purpose of spamming anyone. What constitutes spamming will evolve as we respond to new tricks and tactics by spammers. Some of the factors that we take into account when determining what conduct is considered to be spamming are:

If you have followed a large amount of users in a short amount of time;
If you have a small number of followers compared to the amount of people you are following;
If your updates consist mainly of links, and not personal updates;
If a large number of people are blocking you;
The number of spam complaints that have been filed against you;
If you post duplicate content over multiple accounts;
If you repost other users content without attribution.

Major users such as the @delloutlet, @nytimes, and @britneyspears all break some of these rules. Does this make them bad? No, because the community likes their content and presence. However, when other users create serial accounts, create updates consisting mainly of links, or are blocked, they are treated in a much different manner.

Look closely at every account in the "Twitter Elite", and tell me how many of those aren't placed where they are today due to their owners serially clicking the "follow" button to boost their network.

I sat in a session at Pubcon South with Ricardo Guerrero, the guy who had put Dell on Twitter. He asked the participants to please report spammers. I wonder what would have happened to Dell if he had given that advice a year and a half ago. A Dell that has 21 accounts, tweets nothing but coupon codes on its most successful account, and who specializes in duplicating tweets.

Again I am not saying Dell is bad, I am saying the concept of ethics is flawed in social media because the rules are not steadfast.

Digg.com is another great example. The company actively promotes writers who utilize their accounts to self-promote their work, however in Digg.coms community guidelines they warn:

You're not fooling anyone. Digg is not for commercial use. Please don't use Digg for selling or promoting products and services. If we discover that you're involved in Digging for profit we reserve the right to terminate your account permanently.

I think professional writers probably work for CPM based sites, and thus the traffic they are getting from self-promoted content is profitable.

The crux of the issue is really that social media is too new to even understand what its ethical parameters are as of yet. Some will try to argue this with me, but in the end I can create a pretty good argument that many of the most successful social media campaigns were in some way unethical or spammy.

Anyone who has read my work before, or seen me speak, knows I make no excuses for what I do in either the search or social media realms. I make money. It is my only goal, and it is why people hire me. For this reason, I see the entire online world in a shade of grey.

I am not advocating spam on search engines, or via social media. I am just a realist, and see that the rules are not equal for everyone.

What I am advocating is that we as marketers approach the issue with a slightly wider viewpoint than the average social media user. A small line separates what the social masses believe is ethical anyway. I would rather be on the more profitable side of that line. Where do you want to be?

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12 Responses to “Social Media: Ethics, Ethics Everywhere, too bad they don’t Exist”

  1. Jeremy says:

    Sheesh, man, next you're going to tell me the Cluetrain Manifesto isn't a holy text.

    I think this is one of the most fascinating divides right now: social media boy scouts who are dogmatic about the role of listening and engagement for its own sake versus marketers who actually do, at the end of the day, or quarter, or year, want to see all their efforts result in sales. It's more than "don't be evil" it's "don't be a douchebag."

  2. Chris Tew says:

    Gradually much of social media will enforce good ethics through technology. Just as Google forced better ethics in the SEO industry.

    This is already beginning as lots of the spammy and unethical behavior on sites like Digg are no longer effective.

  3. Great post Dave

    Rules are as you point out not followed by a lot of Twitter accounts – they could be considered spammers. Ethics well I don’t know, maybe the lack of rules and ethics is the beauty of Twitter.

    Twitter is viral, potent and fast moving, and the rules and ethics will probably change and evolve with Twitter as it grows older.

    I’m pretty new using Twitter, and so far I think the retweet spam is the biggest problem, together with automated posting of random/old blog posts. Retweet is a problem, if large parts of the people you follow also follow each other.

  4. John Serra says:

    I agree with you when it comes to being on the profitable side of the line, but I also believe we have a responsibility to not devalue the medium both for our own future and others.

  5. Jill Whalen says:

    Dave, Dave, oh Dave…

    First of all, the Twitter guidelines you posted said right there:

    Some of the factors that we take into account when determining what conduct is considered to be spamming are:

    Emphasis mine. They take those things into account, then make a judgment. They didn't say those things were spam.

    Now don't take offense at the rest of this. I'm saying it in a most loving manner because I know you're a good guy.

    Here's my problem with articles such as this: as soon as people read them, they think everything is gray, so everything goes.

    And you know what happens then? Yet another tool or internet thing that we all love gets ruined by the spammers. It happens every time, just like comment spam, or even search engine spam. So why speed up its imminent demise with articles like this? Just so you can make money off it?

    Others besides marketers use Twitter, and I know that you use it for more than just promotion. How are you going to feel in 2 years when it's no longer useful because social media marketers like you ruined it for the rest of us?

  6. Here is Jill Whalen doing what I believe she has always done – giving sensible, measured, thoughtful, far-sighted, non-destructive, right-thinking advice. Think just a tad beyond this year's bucks and who's getting more bangs-per-tweet. Don't allow the internet, and particularly social networking, go the same way as the world's banking. The EXCESSIVE money-grabbers bringing it to it's knees, and further…
    P.S. I found this item through following Jill on Twitter.

  7. Greg says:

    @jill, you think this article is going to speed something along that as you said is imminent. Any technology that's "social" goes down this path…from IRC to FB, there's no stopping it.

    However I think the "rules" are relatively equal. "Spammy" people that are still around must be producing content/deals/info for their relative inquiring minds. Right?

  8. Jeremy says:

    @Jill- Not sure I agree. Whether new mediums like Twitter get trashed won't be decided by self-restraint. Email, blog, twitter, serp, MFA spam… it's all the same problem. Protecting the usefulness of these services always has and will always be a technology arms race. But I do agree with you… that's not a free ticket to constantly play on the spammy side of that arms race.

    Social media sites have the inherent incentive to police themselves and ensure that whatever "spam" is to them doesn't pay (or at least not reliably well).

  9. Social Media Optimization is still in its infancy, and the rules are hardly cast in stone yet, so expect loads of people trying to leverage advantage for their brands / customers.

    It will get better, but for now there is a wild west kind of new frontier vibe about SMO / SMM in general, which this post serves to illuminate.

  10. paisley says:

    Ethics… SEO or Social..
    I have one statement..

    "Google's Terms of Service do not allow the sending of automated queries of any sort to our system without express permission in advance from Google. Sending automated queries absorbs resources and includes using any software (such as WebPosition Gold™) to send automated queries to Google to determine how a website or webpage ranks in Google search results for various queries."

    When was the last you think someone violated this rule?

    Some rules are monitored and enforced, some are not..

    @linn barringer: you are a blind, naked sheep according to your comment.. if you don't understand, no worries.. but look up "jim jones" and "kool-aid". you might get it. or maybe it's just too late.

  11. Simon Salt says:

    Interesting use of the word Ethics here, you state that "social media is too new to even understand what its ethical parameters are as of yet." Social Media isn't new, its discovery by Marketers is new, but many people have been using social media tools for nearly a decade (I launched my first podcast series in 1998, before there was an iPod and so they were called webcasts), so there has been plenty of time for ethics. The dictionary defines ethics as "the rules of conduct recognized in respect to a particular class of human actions or a particular group,culture" Justifying your use of Social Media by saying I am here to make money, so the world is grey and therefore what I do is ok because I dont disguise it, doesnt make it ethical. Thats just blatant, its not even honest. You say the rules are not equal for everyone – does that mean then that if you use social media for making money then you should be using a different set of rules than those people who use social media to be social? Wouldn't that then extrapolate to the real world, I'm in the real world to make money so the laws by which the rest of society is governed don't apply to me. That's a pretty thin argument you have there – or perhaps AIG doesn't ring any bells!

  12. Well about ethics it's sort of a one way street for Google. They really would like if Google and Google alone could decide the rankings, in a world where no one manipulate the ranking results.

    So if you make automated queries it’s probably because you want to manipulate the rankings!! Most or all ranking checks are scraping Google, and are in violation with Google rules.

    If you make to many checks they will close the access to Google down – for a limited time (been there got the T-shirt)