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Social Media Responsibility

My wife pointed me to an LA Times story today that made me cringe…The article recounted how TV personality Bill Nye (“The Science Guy”) suddenly passed out while speaking at USC. While this caused a tense moment, he appears to be okay now. However what incensed me was how the crowd reacted. Witnesses noted the crowd did nothing, they did not come to his aid, and they were of no help to Bill whatsoever. But the audience was oh-so quick to grab their phones and tweet/IM/Facebook about what they were watching. Therein lies the problem – they were watching, not acting. In today’s post I’m going to explore responsibility as it relates to social media – the responsibility that comes with living in the real world vs. a perpetual state of virtual reality.

As most of you know, I’m a big fan of social media. I use it personally and my company has a social media practice area which offers social media services to our clients. But when social media addiction takes precedence over common sense, over helping another human being, it may be time to reassess the world in which we live. Social tools, platforms and networks are meant to be conduits to broader and deeper relationships. The real benefit of social media is in improving how we interact not in creating barriers to engagement. The digital world is at its best when it brings us closer together and at its worst when moves us further apart.

I probably wouldn’t even bring up this topic if what happened to Bill was an isolated event, but it’s not. I have observed other reports where people have been attacked, injured, or were otherwise in need of help but didn’t receive it because bystanders would simply rather standby than help. They would rather shoot a video, bang out a tweet, or just go on ignore rather than help a fellow human being…

Let me be clear – I’m not attempting to dismiss the value of social media, because it would take contriving an intellectually dishonest argument to attempt to nullify something that offers so many benefits and so much potential. In fact, I hope that some in Bill Nye’s audience were attempting to contact emergency services, but I rather suspect that this was not the case for most of them.

Let me ask you a few questions: Which world do you live in – the real world or the virtual world? Are you still able to distinguish the difference between the two? The term “virtual reality” derived its name for a reason…because it’s NOT real – it’s virtual, simulated, and it can easily become fantasy if you lose touch with reality. Even scarier is when the ambiguous and ethereal become your reality. If you choose voyeurism over real relationships you have precariously positioned yourself on a very slippery slope. It’s perfectly fine to spend time in the virtual world if you recognize it as such. So, are you still in touch with reality? Do you avoid human relationships in lieu of online relationships? Are your online relationships adding value to your personal and professional life or harming them? Would you reach out to another human being in need of help or just tweet about it?

The simple message here is anything can be misused, or abused. Anything can become an addiction or an idol – even something as wonderfully powerful as social media. I have no problem with social media if it’s adding value to your world. I have no issue with social media being used to help people as has been the case on numerous occasions around the world. But I do have an issue (and so should you) if social media is cutting you off from the real world, and is keeping you from helping others. When black & white becomes permanently blurred so that everything reads as shades of grey, things can become dicey. Real life is not a spectator sport – it’s a participation sport, and in fact, I submit to you that it’s a full contact participation sport.

As always I welcome your comments below…

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    Mark Oakes

    November 18, 2010 at 12:03 pm


    Like yourself, I recognize some of the benefits of social media/networking. Yet, I struggle quite a bit with it, ebb and flow relative to it's value and application in my life and that of my bride and sons.

    Social networking is very alluring. As 'social' creatures it fills a void; a deep seated desire to be recognized and appreciated. We all rest more easily knowing we have our neighborhood of 'friends' always at the ready on our phones and computers. Yet, IMHO, it creates a very dangerous 'feel good' dependency that replaces the choppy, uneven, imperfect world of learning to build deep, lasting relationships face-to-face.

    For those who say "It's not addictive and I'm not addicted. It's just a tool", here's a challenge. For 1 week, cease ALL interaction on social networks and check your email only 1 time a day. Instead, have deep, meaningful discussions with family and friends. Do this and then draw your own conclusions.



      November 18, 2010 at 12:18 pm

      Hi Mark:

      You make some great points – the best of which is being aware of how social media/networking impacts your family. Receiving acclaim from those you don't know is meaningless if you aren't appreciated by those you love. I have but no doubt you'd have been the first person to rush to Bll Nye's side. Thanks for adding value to this discussion Mark.

    Mike Henry Sr.

    November 18, 2010 at 12:07 pm

    Interesting story and post, Mike. Social Media is a tool. I'm intrigued at how we're all tempted to substitute a virtual anything for a real anything. Take "reality TV" (please).

    My mind is racing around between what I've been a part of over the last two years in social media and the participants in the story. Am I substituting the virtual world for the real one? There is much to ponder in the realms of privacy, intimacy, responsibility, and community and the affect of Social Media on all of them like so many "things" can be either positive or negative. I'm reminded of the Edmund Burke quote, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."

    My goal is to use the tools to help people engage their world, not disengage. I want to help us check in, and be more productive when we do. I hope that's what's happening, but like you I am concerned. Thanks for the reminder.


      November 18, 2010 at 12:12 pm

      Hi Mike:

      Thanks for sharing. For what it's worth, I think what you've accomplished at LeadChange is a great example of using social media to add value and create relationships. I also love the Burke quote – one of my favorites…Thanks again for sharing Mike.

    Shakirah Dawud

    November 18, 2010 at 1:06 pm

    Thanks for this post, Mike. I was beginning to wonder if I was the only one noticing the gradual retreat among many of us from any action not related to the virtual world. While I can't blame social media since I've seen this trend in metropolitan areas (old woman's purse snatched; no one ran after the snatcher), what you noted here is more than passivity, it's active withdrawal from reality, which is pretty dangerous. I think we need to wonder whether we'd like to be helped or tweeted about if we're in a compromised situation.


      November 18, 2010 at 1:17 pm

      Hi Shakirah:

      Thanks for your comment. I think you asked the million dollar question: "would I like to be helped or tweeted about if we're in a compromised situation?" We should not expect from others what we are not willing to give ourselves. Great insights…

    Del Williams

    November 18, 2010 at 1:08 pm

    I don't think online is to blame, but poor people skills. This generation is weak in many ways. According to a survey done recently the average person only has 2 close friends. The worst part was that 30% have none. People don't know how to really relate, and I don't blame online for that. I blame poor real world training. Too much where fakeness is rewarded. But to see another person harmed or injured and do nothing is a sad indictmen on our society. Of course, back in the 60s people stood around and watched a woman get raped and murdered, and they did nothing. No social media to blame. It's a people problem. "If it's not me, I don't care." Sad.


      November 18, 2010 at 1:23 pm

      Hi Del:

      I agree for the most part. I would add the caveat that online isn't exclusively at fault, but I do think it has an impact, at least for some. My fear is that the digital world provides a safe haven for many making it easier for some to remain on the sidelines. My greatest concern is that as a society we don't reach the point where apathy becomes the rule and not the exception – I think we're closer to this than many may realize. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Del.

    Becky McCray

    November 18, 2010 at 1:36 pm

    When I was in high school, a pair of actors fell off the stage right into the space in front of the front row. The audience gasped, and then talked to each other. Not one person stood up to help. The pair was helped by other actors in the performance. This happened in the late 1980's. The phenomenon you are commenting on isn't new. Plenty of additional "bystander" stories can be found, dating back years and years.

    Real world versus virtual world is not the underlying problem. It's more about human nature when we cast ourselves into the role of nonparticipants.

    That's my opinion, and I recognize that it's kind of off from the topic you're wanting to focus on.


      November 18, 2010 at 1:48 pm

      Hi Becky:

      Thanks for your comment, which actually is similar to Del's observations. While there are many reasons for apathy – fear, anxiety, etc., there is actually a psychological term (big surprise) called "bystander syndrome" which could come into play as well. The theory behind bystander syndrome is that bystanders don't respond because they're certain that others will do so therefore obviating the need for personal involvement. While there are clearly many possible explanations for what happened, the new wrinkle in the equation is social media. The fact that people were immediately engaged virtually via social media had an impact on behavior. Again, I'm not saying that social media is responsible for what happened, but it was certainly a contributing factor. Thanks for adding to the discussion Becky.

        Ryan Knap

        November 18, 2010 at 2:10 pm

        Bystander syndrome was the first thing which popped into my head. It's one of the first parts you learn of CPR/First Aid is you have to instruct someone to help or chances are no one in a group will do something.


          November 18, 2010 at 2:19 pm

          Agreed…that said, it wasn't that some of the bystanders didn't take action, it was the actions they chose to take that I'm trying to shine the spotlight on. I'm hoping that the need for a social media fix, doesn't supersede the desire to aid someone in need. I guess time will tell. Thanks for sharing Ryan.


    November 18, 2010 at 1:49 pm

    Hey Mike,

    Thanks for writing this post, such an important topic (way more worthwhile than another stat on how many companies are or aren't using Twitter).

    I find myself in a similar situation cringing at some of the digital behaviors of our youth. As a digital marketing consultant, I've been praising the promise of these new technologies, but I also have been learning more and more about the negative side effects of our increasing use of digital.

    The one thing I would add is that the bystander phenomena is not entirely new. "The greater the number of people present, the less likely people are to help a person in distress." however I wholeheartedly agree with the overall message of your post.

    Recently I spoke to a group of high-school marketing educators about the current state of social media marketing. I learned from the teachers that their students have no problem using "social media" (they actually teach the teachers) but instead they need training on marketing principles and "real-world" social interaction.

    Keep fighting the good fight, and I hope others are keeping an eye out for the negative effects of our children's digital use…


      November 18, 2010 at 2:14 pm

      Thanks for sharing your experience and insights. Your points are well taken. As with most things in life, even the most productive behaviors taken to an extreme can quickly turn into destructive practices. I'm only advocating for change where needed, and in my humble opinion change is needed when people suffer unnecessarily as a result of bad habits/practices/decisions.


    November 18, 2010 at 3:16 pm

    you have some great points here. Thanks for sharing.

    Chris Muglia

    November 19, 2010 at 1:57 pm

    People are different; they stratify; some help, most don’t. The stratification is contextual; in some situations, those in certain strata would have helped Bill in others they would not.

    Why did an entire audience Twitter rather than help? Maybe it is because a phenomenon of he bystander effect is that the probability of help is thought to be inversely related to the number of bystanders. How many bystanders were there in the the audience? Maybe 300? Say 50 % sent out tweets. How many bystanders were there once those tweets had a chance to make the rounds? Tens of thousands?

    What would have happened, I wonder, if the audience had been a group of professional leaders, say military officers, or CEOs, people used to making decisions and acting quickly?

    How about a contextual change? Strong, hardbacked men (as we say in the Caribbean), mountaineers at the top of their game, innate calculators of risks and used to making life or death decisions abandoned Dr. Seaborn Weathers in a coma. Left for dead by his friends and climbing partners on Everest. After being out for twelve hours he climbed down into Camp 4 and lived. We can’t judge people in a situation like that, they have to judge themselves. Glad I’m not one of those guys.

    Another contextual change: I wonder if a group CEOs walking down a sidewalk in NYC would have stopped to help Alfredo Tale-Yax? He was stabbed to death helping a woman who was being attacked. At least twenty people walked by while he lay died on the sidewalk.

    Aw, but these were college kids, right? What if it was college kids fresh off of a NOLS course?

    How about our grandparents? Would they have acted differently?

    It takes stones to leap out of your audience chair and run up on stage to help someone. But that is one of the many characteristics of leadership, doing what you perceive to be the right thing, even if it goes against the crowd or you are – initially anyway – a bystander.

    Would I have risked my life to haul Seaborn’s ass off of Everest? I climbed for years, that kind of situation at that extreme never came up. Maybe it was because I was a prudent climber, maybe it was because I am not as much of an “adventurer” as the guys on Everest that day. But I think of myself as one who would have hauled him down, even in the face of my buddies saying to leave him. I hope I would have had the stones to do it, anyway.

    If I see someone snatch an old ladies purse? Man, that’d be like a tennis ball thrown into a lake to a dog. Yes, I’d run after him.

    Do I do what I think is the right the right thing for the people I do my best to lead? Different ball, different lake, same dog.


      November 19, 2010 at 4:19 pm

      Wow – this is better than my original post, and much more entertaining :). Thanks for the candor of your comment Chris – solid perspective here. Please stop by again…

    Ashley Salzman

    November 23, 2010 at 3:27 pm

    As I began to read your first few sentences, I was expecting (unhappily expecting) to read why social media is doing more harm than good.

    I must say I am happy to be incorrect. Even though the online social world has opened many opportunistic doors for many people/organizations, we should be mindful of both the virtual and physical worlds.

    This reminds me of the Perez Hilton — will.i.am debaucle. Where has human decency and consideration for one another gone? If you can't offer immediate, physical assistance…CALL those that can, don't tweet or f'book or whatever it… We need to continually make sure to publish articles like this in order to keep people in the right mindset. I very much enjoyed this piece, thank you!


      November 23, 2010 at 5:12 pm

      Hi Ashley:

      Thanks for the kind words and for your insights as well.

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