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



Ethics and Health in Social Media

We don’t talk much about the ethics involved with social media, especially in Healthcare where it matters most.

Why not?

Is because everybody is so absorbed with “how to use social media to______”?” that ethics isn’t even a thought?

We developed schools of ethics because ethical issues can be hard to spot on the surface. A general “be kind, be good” doesn’t cut it. No matter how good we are, it can be easy for us to commit ethical slips.

What are the ethics of following patients on Foursquare (a geolocation service)? Yes, geolocation has it’s place in health care and crises. But isn’t it a bit weird that hospitals would follow people’s check-ins, especially when most check-ins have nothing to do with any kind of health care?

What are the ethics of scouring public posts, tweets, status updates, etc.? Can researchers mine public data without any ethical restraint just because that data are public?

We aught not carry a dismissive attitude about what doors social media are opening up.

Just because a tool creates a new opportunity for you, it doesn’t mean you have to use it.


The discourse and assumptions and philosophies we adopt right now – today, this very year, this very moment – will forever shape the kind of civilization we make. Let’s call it ethical lock-in.

Do you not realize how transformative this age – this momentous, changing-right-before-your-eyes age – we live in is becoming every day?

Do you not see how Twitter can be used by the charming Hitler’s of the world to lead us into destruction? Remember: evil empires always slip in theough the cracks unfilled by dismissive peoples. Tweet by Hilter:


Adolf Hitler


RT @.FDR The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. << Except…Adolf Hitler, bit*ches! LOL

March, 1933 via UberTwitter

The above tweet sounds absurd: but it’s physically possible – had Twitter been around in the 1930s, it would have shaped the course of history. I don’t mean any offense or lightening of history – the point is that a dictator could very easily use these media to exploit entertainment and spectacle to throw his evil into the shadows under the guise of “that whacky guy”. Would you follow Hitler on Twitter? It’s an ethical question: follow him and you help build his “following” and thus boost his ego and possible reach; block him and you might not see what he’s up to.

What are the ethics of a hospital following patients? No right or wrong answer per se. But there are ramifications to following on Twitter – I can use software to see who a hospital follows (and who follows a hospital), map out all the connections, mashup dashboards of content – metadata – and use that for purposes nobody even considered when they hit the follow button. Just a thought. What if an insurance company did exactly that?

Do you not see how boundaries on Facebook can be easily violated?

Do you not see that a conversation in an elevator is not the same thing as a tangle of @ replies on Twitter? We do not live in a linear universe – the online world is *not* necessarily a mirror of the offline one: to believe that is an error of logic –

Do you not see how geolocation services can open wide the chance for governments to achieve their long-dreamt hope of the perfect Security State?

Do you not see how the Facebook Wall might be like Plato’s Wall? This is important – for if we do not understand our reality, how can we form ethics?


I’m not saying these media are all bad.

I am saying that we owe it to ourselves to think critically.

But I suspect that our dopamine receptors may be getting too full to deal with the hard brain-work which all ethical discourses require.

Hurry – the window for us to create healthy and democratic spaces on the Web is fast-closing.

An unhealthy and unethical civilization creates unhealthy and unethical people until it vanishes.

Healthcare professionals (including marketers) have a duty – and a right – to scrutinize the ethics of how social media is used; how they influence our health; and how to ensure that social media’s deceptive simplicity ramifies and complexifies ethical matters we take for granted.

If you truly love social media and don’t think this is a big deal, then why would you be afraid to have your ideas filtered through the rigor of critical examination?

The question mark is the ultimate social medium.

@PhilBaumann – @HealthIsSocial – Newsletter


Proper Attribution Tips for Healthcare Bloggers

A few words about making the best of a networked world where attribution is the simplest, easiest and cheapest way to build community and presence.

Those of you who follow this blog know that Healthcare has been slow to adopt emerging media. That’s been changing though. It’s important that the people who are in the learning stage understand the cultural ramifications of what happens online.

Blogging is ancient sport these days. It may be new to many hospitals and nurses and doctors – and even healthcare marketers and agencies! – but that doesn’t mean a kind reminder of attributing sources and inspiration properly isn’t in order.

So here’s a video with a reminding appeal to healthcare bloggers to consider linking back to the posts you read that may have influenced your thinking (or view it here):

It’s not just about being ethical (although I would argue that healthcare professionals and marketers should hold themselves to higher standards in their communications than certain other industries).

It’s actually a benefit to link out. Why? Because the economy of blogging is made of hyperlinks. That’s a big part of how Google works. That’s a big part of how people find you, spread news of your existence and expand your horizons.

It can take years to ramp up a blog.

So enjoy the ride by shooting out those thready spindles to the very people who just might help to catch you when your blog takes a dive into a snare because you thought it was all about you.

And if you’re worried about “competition”, you clearly don’t understand how this social media stuff works.

I’ve said it before: If you can’t Retweet your competition, you just don’t have what it takes to succeed in this business. Quit now and do something better with your time.

Link. Or sink.

UPDATE: Bryan Vartabedian had a great riff today over on 33charts. He’s 100% right about how much of blogging over the years became about the mechanics of search engine optimization, etc. It’s still a huge problem today. He’s also right about the narcissism involved in link-love, and that blogging is about the reader, not the blogger.

Bryan has extremely valid points and they stand alone. But that’s not the issue in this post.

The concern in this post is primarily about two completely different things.

First, it’s about being mindful of crediting back to a source that a blogger knowingly uses (not inadvertently being influenced). This is consistent with the spirit of ethical behavior and thinking (note: I wouldn’t say it’s unethical not to courteously attribute, only the kind of thinking involved in trying to appear original).

Second, linking is one of the simplest ways of helping readers. It’s a benefit to readers if it’s done elegantly – and not overdone.

Linking-out isn’t a pat on the back to the original author. It’s a finger telling the reader where you’ve been travelling in the hope that they’ll find new land.

@PhilBaumann –       @HealthIsSocial