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March 18, 2009

Social Media: Ethics, Ethics Everywhere, too bad they don’t Exist

I just got back from Pubcon South and was surprised when a fellow marketer asked a question about certain tactics utilized on Twitter being “blackhat, whitehat, and grayhat.” The question surprised me firstly because it was a historically SEO adjective being applied to social media, and secondly because I am not sure there are even ethics in relation to Twitter, a service that is a little over two years old.

Before you start spitting your coffee in rage, I understand that if someone breaks the terms of service of a social community they are seen as having soiled the “ethical” code of that small society. But the reality, the same as it is with search, is that not everyone is held to the same ethical standards.

Google’s webmaster guidelines of course tell us:

Don’t create multiple pages, subdomains, or domains with substantially duplicate content.

Meaning, keep from scraping content and polluting the web with the same content someone has already hosted. They feel this practice devalues the content on the web and the user experience. Of course in the end a search engine crawler is simply scraping content, and a search engine is simply publishing that content for the end user. Don’t believe me? What would happen if every site in the world excluded Google’s crawl tomorrow? Ethics here are being determined by those with the most leverage in the relationship.
The same goes for social media.

Recently I took a look at some of the recommendations made by Twitter in their “Twitter Rules.”

Impersonation: You may not impersonate others through the Twitter service in a manner that does or is intended to mislead, confuse, or deceive others

Serial Accounts: You may not create serial accounts for disruptive or abusive purposes.

Spam: You may not use the Twitter service for the purpose of spamming anyone. What constitutes “spamming” will evolve as we respond to new tricks and tactics by spammers. Some of the factors that we take into account when determining what conduct is considered to be spamming are:

  • If you have followed a large amount of users in a short amount of time;
  • If you have a small number of followers compared to the amount of people you are following;
  • If your updates consist mainly of links, and not personal updates;
  • If a large number of people are blocking you;
  • The number of spam complaints that have been filed against you;
  • If you post duplicate content over multiple accounts;
  • If you repost other user’s content without attribution.

Major users such as the @delloutlet, @nytimes, and @britneyspears all break some of these rules. Does this make them bad? No, because the community likes their content and presence. However, when other users create serial accounts, create updates consisting mainly of links, or are blocked, they are treated in a much different manner.

Look closely at every account in the “Twitter Elite”, and tell me how many of those aren’t placed where they are today due to their owners serially clicking the “follow” button to boost their network.

I sat in a session at Pubcon South with Ricardo Guerrero, the guy who had put Dell on Twitter. He asked the participants to “please report spammers.” I wonder what would have happened to Dell if he had given that advice a year and a half ago. A Dell that has 21 accounts, tweets nothing but coupon codes on its most successful account, and who specializes in duplicating tweets.

Again I am not saying Dell is bad, I am saying the concept of ethics is flawed in social media because the rules are not steadfast. is another great example. The company actively promotes writers who utilize their accounts to self-promote their work, however in’s community guidelines they warn:

You’re not fooling anyone. Digg is not for commercial use. Please don’t use Digg for selling or promoting products and services. If we discover that you’re involved in Digging for profit we reserve the right to terminate your account permanently.

I think professional writers probably work for CPM based sites, and thus the traffic they are getting from self-promoted content is profitable.

The crux of the issue is really that social media is too new to even understand what its ethical parameters are as of yet. Some will try to argue this with me, but in the end I can create a pretty good argument that many of the most successful social media campaigns were in some way “unethical” or “spammy.”

Anyone who has read my work before, or seen me speak, knows I make no excuses for what I do in either the search or social media realms. I make money. It is my only goal, and it is why people hire me. For this reason, I see the entire online world in a shade of grey.

I am not advocating spam on search engines, or via social media. I am just a realist, and see that the rules are not equal for everyone.

What I am advocating is that we as marketers approach the issue with a slightly wider viewpoint than the average social media user. A small line separates what the social masses believe is “ethical” anyway. I would rather be on the more profitable side of that line. Where do you want to be?

By Dave Snyder As posted in Social Media