Six Lessons From The Ghost Twittering Saga

Eureka momentLast week, I wrote a post about an a-list blogger (Guy Kawasaki) who used ghost writers on his Twitter account. The reaction to that post has been thought-provoking, to say the least.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of the whole episode, as a client put it, was watching the ripples go out from my post. Whether it was posts by the likes of Stowe BoydNeville Hobson, Sarah Perez, Li Evans and others, stories in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times or the sheer volume of discussion on my post, this topic certainly caught the attention of a lot of people.

I’ve had plenty of conversations about this post over the last week, and I’ve done a fair bit of thinking on my own. I’ve learned some interesting lessons:

Ethics works in grey areas

The more I write about ethical issues in social media, the more I’ve come to realize that ethical dilemmas are rarely black and white. There’s rarely a clear right or wrong, and most of the debate takes place in the grey area inbetween.

To make matters more complicated, the extent of different peoples’ grey areas varies. Some people see ghost writing, for example, very clearly at one end of the scale and others see it at the other end, but most see it as somewhere in the middle. As I’ve thought about it more and more (and as I’ve been exposed to over 200 peoples’ views over the last few posts), I’ve come to see it as more of a grey area.

I still have my views; I still think it’s wrong and, at best, often ineffective; but I see the other side too, along with a spectrum of opinions inbetween.

Different people use tools in different ways

I’ve always thought of Twitter as a place to connect; as a place to learn; as a place to share. From a corporate side, I’ve thought of it as a place to build relationships; to answer questions; to trouble-shoot; to manage issues. I’ve rarely thought of it as a place to overtly promote.

This week I opened my eyes a little and recognized people using Twitter in ways that I haven’t considered acceptable, and doing it successfully. I was aware of it before, but I avoided those people and in doing so forgot that it was happening to an extent.

New perspectives are valuable. I’ve re-gained one this week.Respond quickly to controversy

While I don’t think that referring to people who raise concerns as “self-appointed consciences of Twitter” is a great way to defuse things, I thought Guy Kawasaki responded well to the ethical concerns I raised.

I know Kawasaki tells people to forget the A-list, but I wasn’t expecting him to change his approach to disclosure just because of one email from me, Z-lister that I am. 

On the contrary, not only did I get a prompt and polite response from guy, but he immediately tweaked things based on my concerns. His twitter bio now names the other authors, and posts from them now include their initials at the end.

(To be clear, Kawasaki never denied the practice and conducted an interview earlier this year where he discussed it; however this was the first time it was disclosed up-front in his bio)

A separate discussion has started over whether his use of Twitter constitutes spam, but that’s not what I asked him about. Those issues are for another day. He addressed my concerns.

Naive to think it wouldn’t get personal

I naively hoped to avoid provoking personal attacks on Kawasaki from commenters. Unfortunately, I couldn’t. I’m sure he’s used to it and has a thick skin, but I was sorry to see the attacks happen and I did my best to stop those I saw.

Fortunately, we also got into a vibrant debate on ghost writing on Twitter, which was my initial hope.

On ethical issues, act proactively not reactively

As the conversation evolved, I noticed that numerous people weren’t convinced by Kawasaki’s response because he had to be asked before he changed the way he went about things. In their view, it was a grudging shift rather than a genuine one, and as a social media figurehead he should have known better.

Whether that’s the case or not, there’s a good lesson to learn for the future – if there are vulnerabilities in what you are doing, take the opportunity to fix them now. Don’t wait for people to shine a light on them.

Reflection on why I take a stand on ethics

 This week’s saga also caused me to reflect on why I keep coming back to the theme of ethics. Initially, I did it because some activities ran contrary to what I considered the ‘right’ way to go about things.

Over time, I’ve become more of a pragmatist. The fundamental ethical concern with things like ghost writing is still there, but I’ve realized that there’s also a pragmatic layer to why I feel so strongly about these matters.

I’m a consultant. I advise companies on, among other things, how to find their feet using these tools. I don’t want to see my clients on the receiving end of something like this week’s controversy. The risk/benefit ratio just doesn’t justify unethical tactics.

How about you?

I learn from your reactions to all my posts. It’s why I post so much, and why I post on topics ranging from those about which I know a fair deal, to those about which I know very little. When a post resonates like the ghost twittering post did, I learn even more. 

What did you learn from all this?

  • Very cool of you to be so frank about what you’ve learned, Dave. It is easy (and fun) to jump up on soapboxes and lecture from our perceived high ground – it’s a speciality of mine, actually – but it’s a lot harder to step back down and acknowledge the difference between what you would do vs. what you wouldn’t and what’s right vs. what’s wrong.
    I think you nailed it when you said “This week I opened my eyes a little and recognized people using Twitter in ways that I haven’t considered acceptable, and doing it successfully.”
    My only real concern with what Guy was doing was that it wasn’t readily apparent. Rightly or wrongly, the prevailing expectation is that the person named in the account is the one doing the Tweeting. Now that he’s addressed that, live and let live, I guess. Not my cup of tea but I am not the Twitter Police.

  • I see absolutely no reason why you should apologise for making an issue about ethics. There is far too little of it happening. Check the state of the economy just for a starter!

    If somebody uses ghost authors to write under their name without being totally upfront about it, there is a questionable ethic. Could be in the grey area only. Still it’s grey.

    Well done.

  • Dave, great insights and thanks for being candid. As you know, I have been struggling with all the “ghosts” too, but I am not quite there yet to say that “it depends.” Maybe one day…

    Here’s the thing about Guy…he told people 6-8 weeks ago (maybe even longer) that people were helping him with his account. He was very public about it. But, as it is with Twitter, if we aren’t part of the conversation, we’d miss it. (I was part of the conversation and remember it was around when he release his tips on how to use Twitter, which he tweeted he knew it would tick some folks off.)

    The reason I don’t have any issues with the way Guy uses social media tools is because he has never said he was a “social media” guy. Nope. Never. He’s a traditional marketer through and through and he uses social media tools for traditional marketing. I respect that a whole lot more than “social media experts” who spam the lot of us with their broadcasting and then teach companies to do the same.

    I think at the end of the day, it depends on what the community wants. If those of us that follow and engage with Guy don’t care, then it’s a non-issue (even though people might want to analyze it to death). And those that do take issue, it’s as simple as unfollowing/unfriending.

    That said, I am happy to see that Guy did listen to you Dave, that says a lot!

  • I had always assumed that big PR/Marketing names would have a team behind their twitter accounts; there is no way large offices can be run single-handed. Guy Kawasaki’s ‘twitter team’ became an issue because his name is also his business name and brand; then again would he have attracted the same following as G_Kawasaki_Inc?

    The internet encourages constantly reminds businesses that transparency is essential. A twitter bio does not give much space to include a team but there are other options; introduce your collaborators to your followers; use the background space; use other Social Media platforms. Best selling authors have research teams and editors, why not twitterers?

    My view: Full disclosure and let your audience decide.

  • Of course, ethical issues relating to human behaviour have been debated for centuries and so it isn’t really surprising that the field of social media offers many grey areas. If you add in its global reach, dynamism and emerging scenarios, it would be surprising if there are any clear rights or wrongs.

    Indeed, determining whether or not there should be rules to be followed is in itself determining a single ethical framework which may not be considered the right approach by others who are equally concerned about ethics.

    Most theories of ethical decision making highlight the first step is to recognise when there could be an ethical dilemma – before determining the facts of the situation, considering who is affected and whether or not there are special obligations (eg when children are involved). I suppose discussing ethical issues about social media in social media helps with this aspect at least.

    But deciding which ethical perspective to take will still be a matter for personal judgement (albeit within the pressures of the social network).

    Ethical decisions are also consequential with debate and discussion over the ultimate outcome leading to reflection about the decision taken and whether it should be a model to be followed in similar circumstances.

    So I suppose we should learn from ethical theory and use the benefits of social media discussion to reflect on decisions taken.

    But whether or not we can label any decision ethical or unethical is likely to be a matter of reflection not absolute judgement.

  • Heather – well put.

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  • @Beth Harte. I think one of the reasons so many people have taken umbrage with Guy is the fact he only mentioned his ghosting recently. That leaves a huge amount of time where he was happy for people to think he was responsible for his account.

    Take it to the next level – one of the most-discussed topics on your blog the last few weeks has been that of ghost blogging. Would you still have the “we know Guy so we don’t care” approach it it comes out that not all Guy’s blog posts have been written by him?

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  • Hi Dave

    As an English-speaking immigrant and PR pro I have blogged and written “personal” posts / letters / presentations for the execs of every company I have worked for in the past 5 years. At one company I edited 5 of their blogs – as English is not their native language they wouldn’t dream of damaging their company’s rep by going online and posting without someone who understands the medium, knows the message and speaks the language to review the content.

    Ethics aside, companies have a brand to maintain and they need to work with PR pros to do this.

    My 2 Shekels worth (now you know where I immigrated to)

    R.

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