The Dark-Matter Ethics of Social Media

Dark matter is a curious thing. Apparently its a huge part of the universe, but we don’t know much about it. If you’re bored, read this.

Ethics is a curious thing too. Ethical problems abound us. They’re a huge part of the human universe. But – like dark matter – we don’t always see them.

The presence and evolution of social media explosively bring forth into our world new ways of doing things.

Media, like all technologies, reveal and conceal.

The telescope reveals the star and conceals the cell.

The microscope reveals the cell and conceals the star.

The tweet reveals the idea and conceals the context.

This revealing-concealing process of social media implies that the process has within it a seducing deception.

There are subtle ethical issues raised by social media pervading of all facets of life.

For example: Is it ethical for a hospital to monitor mentions of their brand?

On the surface, a common reaction would be “Why yes – if a patient publicly posts a blog or a tweet, all’s fair because it’s in the public sphere”.

But that’s a legal en-framing of the question – not an ethical one. And many people confuse Ethics with Law. The two disciplines are completely different – they overlap, but they’re different.

I won’t answer the question about the ethics of hospital monitoring brand mentions. (For other reading on this, check out @amcunningham post here.)

What I would strongly argue, however, is that hospitals and their agencies have a responsibility to plumb the question.

You see, in ethical investigations, it’s the process of philosophical investigation that leads to new land.

I’m afraid that too many people misunderstand Social Media, in spite of actively using it and working with it.

What I mean more specifically: They aren’t Questioning Concerning Social Media with sufficient depth. (I know, Heidegger gets a little heavy – don’t think too much here 😉

I only cited the hospital brand monitoring. It’s a simple question – but the more you explore it, the more you go “Oh c**p, I didn’t think about that…Yikes, I never even considered this…And, OMG, if this situation arose, this might become a major legal issue…You know, I never thought we could hurt someone in this way. Glad we thrashed these out now.”

There are  many other ethical matters in social media to explore. Twitter, Facebook and the fattening spectrum of other social media strain human brains, so that the surface gets more attention than the depths.

There’s a lot of Dark-Matter Ethics out there in the expanding universe of social media. Now’s a good time to get to know what surrounds you.

Let me leave you with this hypothetical:

Your hospital has just received a court injunction to stop monitoring a named patient’s online presence and social graph.

What do you do now?

(You’ve thought about this one, so you probably already have the answer. I’m quite sure of it.)

Phil Baumann



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