Ego and Responsibility – A Rant About Social Media

October 8, 2010 in It is what it is - opinion column | Comments (2)


Photo from Shutterstock

The following post is based on the transcript of a talk I recently delivered at the 140 Conference in LA. The talk was entitled: “Ego in Social Media – a Rant”. This post captures most of the points and expounds a bit on a few of them. When the video of the talk is available I will post it.

You know that irritating saying that there’s no “I” in team? I used to jokingly counter it by saying “Ah yes, but there is a ‘me’…” because no matter how much group think kumbaya you throw at Corporate America, while teamwork is to a business’ success, it is equally important that individuals feel solid about their contributions and have a sense of personal connection to their work.

Along comes the social web and BOOM, power to the people. As anyone with basic spelling skills knows there are both an “I” and “me” in social media. This is a good thing. People have a voice. People can find community. People can make a real difference. In business, as in any aspect of life, individuals matter. In fact, organizations are stronger when an individual’s story connects to the collective of a corporate narrative; because if you care about what you do and can convey those to whom you speak will be engaged as well.

If you’re reading this wondering how your personal connection to your work can possibly connect to standard business conversation, think of this scenario:

Have you ever been asked: “So, what do you do?” Go ahead. Think about it. Chances are you can’t count how many times you’ve been faced with that question. It’s something we’ve all been asked. It’s polite cocktail conversation – especially in a business setting. What’s generally expected in response is something that resembles a bullet point from your C.V. – what you do for a living. That, however, is not what people are really asking. What people really want to know is why you do it. Are you any good at it? Do you like – dare I suggest – LOVE it?

You may think it difficult to answer in-depth questions in light cocktail chatter, and you may also think that it may not be relevant. My point is that whether explicit or implicit, the ability to express the answers to those questions, even in a brief, passing response is key – and I’ll tell you why. These underlying questions all speak to the critical elements that make you stand out from the crowd – passion, personal engagement and commitment. They are the very things that separate each of us from the other.

And that is where the problem comes in.

Just because I may care about who are you are, doesn’t mean I want to know everything about you. It also doesn’t make every aspect of my life your business.


At the 2010 SXSW Festival in Austin, TX, danah boyd delivered a thought-provoking keynote entitled “Making Sense of Privacy and Publicity.” In it she made a point that resonated with a sonic boom for me … just because someone makes something public doesn’t give someone else the right to publicize it.

In the carbon-based world, if I tell you a story there’s nothing keeping you from telling someone else – save for trust (which is a topic for an entirely separate conversation). In the digital realm, however, people have different expectations. In the digital realm, there’s an assumption indeed even an expectation that posting something carries with it the implicit okay to share that information elsewhere. Of course if I’ve posted it publicly with no protection that is reasonable. If a post or piece of information comes along with a “Tweet this” or “share to…” button, it’s logical to assume that spreading it is okay.

I’m not talking about that stuff. I’m talking about photos posted in semi-closed environments like Facebook, private email or IM conversations between two people, video conversations where one party takes the liberty of recording it without letting the other person know. (This is, by the way, actually illegal.)

The problem is that the lines between digital and meat-space seem to be disastrously blurred for some people. Even worse there are some who, perhaps influenced by the fact that we now live in a world where most all people willingly splay every aspect of their lives open for display take greater liberties not only with their own information but with the lives of others.

At this point you may well be shaking your head saying: “Cathy, people have been mucking around in each others’ lives since … well … probably since the dawn of time. This isn’t any different than gossip from the old general store or neighborhood bar.” On the one hand, you’re right. Since the beginning of time, humankind has kept record of day-to-day happenings. Generally this was more news or event in focus but over time as the pace with which information is gathered and disseminated has accelerated so, too, has the nature of the content.

Now it’s personal … really personal.

We share what we’re doing. We share where we’re doing it. We share articles, photos and thoughts. We reveal with whom we’re friends and with whom we’re connected professionally. These latter two points represent an even more murky arena, how and where to draw the line between personal and professional. Again that’s a topic for deeper discourse at another time, but I think you see where I’m going here …

Whether we like it or not, thanks to the social web business, in face our entire day-to-day existence can and often is shared with most anyone. This means our lives are no longer our own, right? That what we do and say is a matter of public property, right?


Just ask Tyler Clementi. Well, unfortunately you can’t ask him since he committed suicide after a heinous intrusion on his privacy – courtesy of a cruel, immature roommate who invaded his personal space, webcasting an incredibly intimate moment – a moment that just happened to also reveal that Tyler was gay.

Now we can talk about how horrible this is, which it is. We can gasp and shake our heads asking how on earth Tyler’s roommate could possibly thing that doing this was okay, which if course it was not. First, though let’s look at the example that has been set.

We live in a world where individuals are willingly splattering every last minute of their lives open for public consumption – from the extended train wreck that is so-called reality television to the day-to-day exploits that many, myself included, sprinkle liberally across the Internet. In world where people are heralded as famous for nothing more than behaving in a way most of our mother’s would have seen as basis for grounding us, what is keeping one person from violating another’s personal space? It’s back to that trust thing again. The only real barrier that one person has against another revealing their information – is trust.

When individuals fail to show personal discretion and feel compelled to wave their digital hands frantically in the air: “ME! ME! ME! LOOK I’M HERE!! DON’T FORGET ME!” the terrible and logical evolution is that people will take that same liberty with other people’s lives.

If you are someone who swims deeply in the stew of social technologies every day, if you are someone who bases your work in any way leveraging these platforms and services, you have a responsibility. No. Scratch that. You have an obligation. We have handed a loaded gun to the public and we must use the platforms responsibly ourselves and it is equally if not even more important that we be responsible stewards. We must take the time to teach, to explain, to guide and – if need be – bring down the hammer on those who refuse to behave responsibly.

Today’s post is about sharing of information, yet there are myriad aspects to this topic of responsibility that I will be sharing in the coming weeks … things like not taking what doesn’t belong to you, respecting communities, being accountable for your behavior and I’m sure many others will arise.

In the mean time, on this particular subject, I’ll leave you with a few thoughts:
1) Just because you can share something, doesn’t mean you should. Before you hit enter on that Tweet, update that status or post that video/photo stop for a minute – and think. What value does that content offer? Not everything needs be a literary masterpiece nor must it be weighty and important. Value can be humor … which leads me to the next point;
2) Is it your story, picture, video or information to share? Remember that while your individual story is important, we are all inextricably linked and sometimes, oftentimes, that story you tell impacts someone else. Something that’s funny to you may well be less than funny or even truly detrimental to other people. Be mindful of what that means, and sometimes that means;
3) Keep it to yourself. There is a rule in Hollywood, always leave them wanting more. That means holding some things back. I like to think of this point in the words of William Shakespeare, “Discretion is the better part of valor.”


2 responses to “Ego and Responsibility – A Rant About Social Media”

  1. […] also a substantive amount of ego. So when it came time to address this topic, rather than dive into another rant about ego, I figured we’d all be served well by hearing the voice of someone who’s actually written the […]

  2. […] Cathy Brooks talks about what Ego and Responsibility and being careful what you share on the world wide web or what I call the Bizarre Bazaar. I actually love when I hear haters say that I’m an egomaniac because when they find out the truth behind why that logo exists in the first place, it can a big pill to swallow.  In the vein of watching what you do and do not share online, I’ve shared oh, pretty much everything outside of my private love life.  After traveling with my doc and my book for years I shared on stage that I was a self-mutilator and I committed to ending self-abuse. That’s when I was gifted with that I heart Angela Shelton logo.  My friend Jennifer Welker jazzed it up a bit and that’s the one on the store.  For me that logo has such a deeper beautiful meaning because I kept my commitment. I haven’t hurt myself in over six years and I’m wear my shirt proudly. […]