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?

Dave Fleet
Managing Director and Head of Global Digital Crisis at Edelman. Husband and dad of two. Cycling nut; bookworm; videogamer; Britnadian. Opinions are mine, not my employer's.