It seems that almost universally new businesses believe in the positive utility of social media in the business marketplace. I would like to offer to play the Devil’s Advocate, which as a lawyer, is almost second nature. . . So I did a little hunting to survey the opinions of others on the potential drawbacks or negative effects of social media. What I found was interesting. I think perhaps the less than obvious, but more enlightening and more useful aspects of social media are vital to understand how best to leverage its use as a business tool and for personal recreational purposes. Once you are aware of the potential “dark side,” it is that much easier to make positive use of social media. We know social media lets people and businesses connect, that it reduces communication barriers and that it can facilitate relationships with friends and for businesses, potential customers. So what is so dark about lower barriers and constant connections?

On the personal side, it can lead to addiction, and even withdrawal in some extreme cases, but quite often the FOMO syndrome (“fear of missing out”). 62% of 2,000 adults surveyed by MyLife (a social media dashboard) constantly watch their social networks because they don’t want to miss a news update or personal status update. Of these, 40% (54% in millennial users aged 18 to 34) said they would rather do one of these than give up their social media profile:

  • Wait in line at the DMV
  • Read “War and Peace”
  • Do their taxes
  • Give up an hour of sleep each night for a year
  • Run a marathon
  • Sit in traffic for four hours while listening to polka music
  • Get a root canal
  • Spend a night in jail
  • Clean the drains in the showers at the local gym
  • Give up their air conditioner/heater

Of course the most obvious issue with this addiction for businesses is a decline in productivity. The decline in workplace productivity often leads companies to ban social media by policy, or frequently, by placing restrictions on the content their employees can access. The conundrum? Restricting employee access to Facebook or Twitter may severely limit the company’s ability to run social media campaigns and to leverage their employees’ own social media network of friends and colleagues.

There are other risks with business use of social media. Many companies don’t understand the change in business interaction and attitude that using social media requires shifting the burden of marketing from a one-sided effort to sell (like a television commercial or pamphlet), where the company presents its story and product in a static manner, to an interactive dynamic relationship where customers must constantly be engaged and managed as the social media platforms invite their continuous input.

Social media, just as the Internet itself, is ubiquitous. The advent of social media means that buyer power in almost every industry has increased dramatically. Buyers can now directly influence their fellow buyers with both positive and negative opinions on review sites like Yelp and Google. This is a double-edged sword, both good and bad publicity spread quickly in a very influential way.

Social media is inclusive. This is good in terms of reaching a wider audience, but can create unforeseen problems with disclosure of confidential company information. Employees might inadvertently (or intentionally, in the case of a disgruntled former employee) post information revealing a company’s trade secrets and their competitive advantage. Of course you can sue for the intentional (or even the unintentional) release of the information, but the publicity nightmare is difficult to unwind. Sensitive information is quickly and easily duplicated and cached. Once on the web, always on the web.

Social media is informal. It is possible and even likely that a well-meaning employee can take a position on an issue in social media on behalf of their employer without the authority to do so. Sure, the company can discipline the employee and retract the statement, but the wider audience of social media and rapid proliferation of social media postings could mean that a customer or outside news source can leap upon this untimely posting as the company’s actual corporate policy or position on a given matter.

Having identified some of the problems, the obvious next step is to anticipate these issues and create solutions to mitigate the risk.

Posted in: Business Law, Internet