Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Ashton, is that really you?

I belong to a handful of groups on LinkedIn, and one of them currently features a raging debate over the ethics of ghost-tweeting. On one side are those who say that writing tweets for another person -- say, a politician or a CEO -- is no different than writing their speeches, or a quote for a press release. Others counter that Twitter is more like a broadcast medium -- your followers are not reading the speech, they are listening to it, and it's dishonest to have someone else tweet for you.

There's little doubt that ghost-tweeting violates the ethos of social media, which places a premium on authenticity, transparency and direct engagement. Tweets, blog posts or Facebook updates that sound canned or overly commercial alienate friends and followers, and ultimately are self-defeating.

But that doesn't mean that ghost-tweeting is unethical. To me, the question rests on two criteria. Are you trying to deceive an audience by writing someone else's tweets? And is it likely that the audience will be deceived? Here it may be hard for public relations practicioners to discern whether their actions are fooling their audience. We're a bit more savvy, and cynical, about communications practices that many lay people. (Though plenty of us understand less about social media than the average user, I'll give you that.) To me, for example, it's obvious that a lot of politicians aren't actually tweeting in their own names. I don't expect them to, though I would certainly take notice if they did. (Imagine instead of a news conference, a politician holding a live Twitter chat. Does anyone know of someone who has done this?) But is this obvious to everyone? I'm not sure.

Another question to consider is whether a person is tweeting as their own personality, or as their brand. We expect a greater degree of intimacy from the former, and would permit greater formality from someone tweeting as their brand. For example, I follow Ralph Macchio on Twitter, and it's clearly him Tweeting. It would be skeevy if he got someone to start tweeting for him about watching baseball or going to concerts with kids. But Donald Trump is tweeting as Donald Trump the brand, and I have no expectation that he's sitting down with his iPhone and posting updates.

Part of the issue lies with the ambigious nature of Twitter, which Steven Johnson has described as a living, breathing search engine. That makes it a lot more like a news aggegator, Google with a pulse, than a social network in the spirit of Facebook. It's a lot harder to hide on Facebook. You can't have meaningful interactions without revealing some of yourself, which is why some people have a personal profile and others have a more sanitized and guarded "professional" profile. The former is available only to a few close friends and intimate associates, while the other is a convenience that lets them do business on Facebook without giving away too much of themselves. Facebook has also addressed this dilemma with groups and fan pages. I don't necessarily expect personal interaction out of a fan page that I follow, so it doesn't matter much if someone other than the celebrity maintains it.

Twitter, however, is much more spare, which allows users greater freedom to decide how to use it, and leaves any unofficial code of conduct or unspoken rules open to greater interpretation. Ultimately, what that means is that not all ghost-tweets are created equal -- or equally ethical.

1 comment:

Cheryl Walters said...

Hi Johnathan,

Kudos for putting our conversation out into the ethernet for all to read! I really appreciate your viewpoint. What started out as a dialog between a few people expanded into an interesting debate (albeit sometimes testy, a lot of times very funny) among very talented professionals in the field of communications. I am very glad that I was a part of the discussion and who knows? Maybe we can proactively influence the way social media is "used" - maybe.