Social Media vs. Skynet…Who Will Win?

Marni MacLeod

I had the good fortune to attend an excellent panel presentation this morning hosted by Fasken Martineau and moderated by Faskens commercial litigation, technology and IP lawyer, David Wotherspoon on:  “Socializing” Your Business: Legal and Business Considerations of Social Networking.

The Panel kicked off with an entertaining “Stats Vignette” that made it abundantly clear that social media matters to your brand and your corporate survival. As it happens, I recently finished re-watching the Terminator trilogy and as I listened to panel member after panel member talk about the exponential expansion and largely unregulated power of social media – Arnold Schwarzenegger’s voice and a memorable passage from T2: Judgement Day kept surfacing.  That particular passage is:

The Terminator: The Skynet Funding Bill is passed. The system goes on-line August 4th, 1997. Human decisions are removed from strategic defense. Skynet begins to learn at a geometric rate. It becomes self-aware at 2:14 a.m. Eastern time, August 29th. In a panic, they try to pull the plug.

In some regards, the social media phenomenon does seem a bit like an independent, “sentient” being and it’s interesting to contemplate whether it will develop a “mob” mentality (being that its life force is comprised of lots and lots and lots of people) and, if so, what will happen if someone figuratively yells “fire” in a crowded Internet (yeah, yeah I know I’m reaching but my point is that on some level you are dealing with a variant of mob mentality).  So…how does one come to grips with this new, potentially unruly mob if you want to survive in the new wilderness?  And further, if the attraction to social media is based on accessing an authentic voice as opposed to a sales pitch, how do you navigate the waters without sending the message you are trying to manipulate the masses – which can backfire.  This panel had a lot of great suggestions.

Panel member David Vogt, CEO of CrowdTrust Technologies underscored the reach of the existing technology and the shift from passive data collection to the need to participate in an ongoing dialogue if you want to become a trusted thought leader.  Those with something relevant to say and the willingness to participate in debate have a definite advantage.  He also acknowledged (much to my relief) that no one really has a handle on how Web 2.0 and the current social media milieu is going to evolve or how to successfully monetize it (and here I was just thinking I was dumb).

Next up was Mat Wilcox, crisis management maven and CEO of local PR firm the Wilcox Group.  Ms. Wilcox placed the importance of social media squarely in the context of brand and reputation management – at that point I sat up a little taller (and not just because my coffee had kicked in).  Her presentation was peppered with recent examples of why businesses (and people) who ignore the social media phenomenon do so at their peril.  The potential for brandjacking, damage to reputation and derailment of market strategy was the bit that really hit home for me. Which is both good and bad.  Good because it motivated me to commit to taking more time to explore social media and sort out how to help our clients develop a social media strategy. Bad because I’ve been consciously (and successfully) ignoring Twitter up to now (all good things must come to an end I suppose).

Then Faskens litigation and dispute resolution lawyer Mark Fancourt-Smith walked us through some rights enforcement issues (how to stop cyber badmouthing 101) and the problems that can arise when you are trying to get offending material removed from the web.  He also mentioned the trend among litigators toward reviewing social media as a means of gathering evidence. Just so you know…lawyers looooove Facebook.

David Ford, a securities and technology lawyer with Faskens, underscored the need for companies to develop and implement thoughtful (balanced) policies regarding employee use of social media.  While he praised the exciting potential offered by social media from a business perspective, he also cautioned the crowd that harnessing social media for business purposes it was not without its risks.  He stressed the point that if you are going to embrace the technology then balance is key.  Social media policy needs to allow for an authentic voice but remain sensitive issues like client confidentiality, protection of corporate IP and the damage that can be caused by thoughtless posting.  At the same time, David noted that if you micromanage the process and overregulate the medium you undermine its authenticity and remove the very reason people trust the information they find through social media.

Lorene Novakowski , a partner in the Faskens labour, employment and human rights group, capped off the presentation by reviewing recent activity relating to Social Media and privacy laws with particular reference to the Office of the Federal Privacy Commissioner‘s Review of Facebook which ultimately resulted in Facebook’s agreement to implement changes to its privacy settings.  For a quick overview of that investigation and the results see:

“Facebook gets poked by Canada over privacy,” from The Star and “Facebook agrees to better protect privacy,” the National Post.

Ms. Novakowski also offered some useful best practices advice for employers regarding employee screening and monitoring.  It made me wonder how many high school kids out there posting “party” photos stop to consider what a prospective employer will make of them down the road.

Over all, it was a thought provoking morning.  However, what became abundantly clear was that each of the panelists only had enough time to scratch the surface of a fascinating topic – the perfect set up for a sequel I’m sure.  I am hopeful Mr. Wotherspoon will see fit to share these excellent presentations further afield. HINT, HINT.

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