The Internet has spawned the creation — and phenomenal growth — of a range of social technologies. From a standing start in 2004, Facebook™ now has 350 million users. That’s right — 350 million. And while most of these users are between 18 and 35, the business world — and executives — are starting to participate in social technologies. Therefore, it is useful to explore certain of the dimensions of these new technologies, and to consider how to manage some of their attendant legal risks.
Web 1.0 Websites and Email
Most of the social technologies are associated with what is called "Web 2.0". This is in contrast with Web 1.0, which essentially consisted of the first generation of Website technology, that saw the creation of fairly static web experiences (users would read generally unchanging information on Websites; useful stuff, but largely the equivalent of the organization’s paper-based materials made more accessible for being online).
Also part of Web 1.0 was basic email. And again, email is nothing to sneeze at — it is possibly the killer application of the Internet so far, and it is hard for many Internet-enabled people to imagine life without it. But the core use of email is to effect one-to-one, or one-to-few, communication, while Web 2.0 — enabled social technologies are about many-to-many communications.
Web 2.0 Blogs
Passive Websites and email remain very important to this day. Advancing from them, however, are a spate of social technologies that build upon the foundations of Web 1.0, but then go on to create user experiences of greater engagement and immediacy.
Consider the blog, essentially a type of Website, but with regular entries ( usually daily, often updated two or three times a day), opinion, commentary, photos and graphics. There are many types of blogs ( a newish word, derived from the contraction of "web log"), some no more elaborate than an individual’s personal diary; but some quite sophisticated and far reaching in their content (consider the Huffingtonpost.com).
People today are blogging about just about everything. It is estimated that 5 per cent of the US workforce have their own blog, and the current number of blogs is pegged at around 112 million (that’s right, like above, this is millions).
From Blogs to Tweets
Blogs are just the tip of the iceberg of Web 2.0. Consider Twitter™, a fascinating form of micro blogging — "tweet" as in a chirp from a bird, but this being a short burst of information. Each tweet message is limited to 140 characters, betraying their ancestral evolution from SMS texting ( which is also limited in the number of characters per message). Of course, what the tweet lacks in number of characters per message, it makes up for in the number of messages.
Although started only in 2006, Twitter™ is estimated to have some 55 million monthly visits worldwide, essentially reflecting a growth rate of 1,382 per cent. Now, not all tweets are dealing with weighty matters of state or some such. Indeed, in a recent survey of some 2,000 tweets, a market research firm found about 40 per cent to be "pointless babble", while conversational messages made up 37 per cent, with 8 per cent being claimed worthy enough to pass along (while 6 per cent constituted self-promotion by companies, and 4 per cent news).
That’s not to say Twitter™ cannot be pressed into action for a higher purpose. In the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, Twitter™ users distributed the location of hospitals that needed blood. In February 2009, Twitter™ users in Australia distributed valuable updates and alerts on bushfires. Later in 2009, Iranian street parties were fuelled by tweets (especially after the government blocked access to other means of communication).
Social Networking Sites
So-called social networking sites on the Internet, like Facebook™ (and MySpace™) allow users to create profiles, where they can upload photos, post comments, and create links to like spaces created by friends, colleagues or other like-minded individuals. Essentially, a site like Facebook™ allows users to create a series of different online communities, brought together by a common interest or allegiance, but capturing a large number of "friends" (the average user has about 220 "members").
While younger people are the mainstay of a site like Facebook™ (at least for the time being), consider the social networking site known as Linked-In (think Facebook™, but for business people and professionals). Users on LinkedIn® — and currently there are some 50 million users in over 200 countries — maintain a list of "connections" (which includes connections of connections — think an old fashioned rolodex on steroids), which can then all help find someone a job or other opportunity.
Social Media Goes Corporate
To-date, social technologies have been used largely by younger people to stay-in touch and interact with one another. But as the rise of LinkedIn® illustrates, social media is starting to go mainstream. Economists have sites on Facebook™, and scientists are staying in touch by Twitter™.
Sure enough, the corporate world is not far behind in its interest in adopting some aspects of social technologies. Already the sales/marketing groups at certain companies are venturing forth into the choppy waters of social media. At trade shows one can see organizations tweet their constituents. New product releases are also starting to come out in social media settings. Investor relations professionals are intrigued at the possibilities presented by social media. And some CEO’s are starting to reach out to various stakeholders of their companies with social media-based messages.
As the corporate world begins to participate in social media, and take advantage of social technologies, it is imperative that lawyers understand a number of dynamics of these new means of communication, in order that they be able to respond to the attendant legal risks.
One major difference between the Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 environments is the degree of interactivity found in the latter. Blogs invite, and receive, commentary from readers. A blog posting is often merely the first word on a subject, and rarely the last.
Now, we have had "letters to the editor" for as long as we have had paper-based newspapers; but the difference between them and a blog comment is like night and day. Most importantly, a newspaper or magazine in the traditional print-based media has an editor, someone who reads the letters submitted by readers, and who decides which to print (perhaps after some judicious editing).
Blogs typically have no formal, pre-publication editors. Rather, anyone can submit their "letter", and see it come up on the blog, and if it is offensive, or libellous, it can only be removed after the fact (presumably only after the initial damage has been done).
The tone of much Web 2.0 type written communication is very informal. Rather than sounding like a formal business letter, or even a memo, think of a very colloquial email. Indeed, so much of Web 2.0 messaging is like a conversation. Therefore, even when serious topics need to be dealt with, the tone and voice of the writing is very laid back.
Often Web 2.0 writing is also very space constrained. A tweet on Twitter™ is limited to 140 characters. As a result, a whole new shorthand has developed, as "u can c if u txt message with your teenagers". In tweets and other short Web 2.0 messages there is little room for context, or nuance. As a result, much misunderstanding can be generated by a short text-based message. While this may not have grave consequences when teenagers are keeping in touch, it can have a profound impact when the tweet is from a CEO to the investment community.
While blog postings and tweets are colloquial and conversational, and may seem ephemeral — like an oral conversation — in fact they are permanent writings. It’s as though all your conversations were indeed recorded for posterity.
Not only are these writings permanent, they are easily searchable, so that anyone can quickly determine what you did say in your online conversation. Are you getting nervous yet?
Another feature worth noting about Web 2.0 dynamics, is that the reach of these technologies is truly global, just like the Internet itself. And the access points available to users now include a range of handheld devices, making accessibility truly ubiquitous.
Moreover, the increasing mobility of the authors of Web 2.0 messages compounds some of the other dynamics noted above, such as the tendency to immediacy in these communications. Given that much of Web 2.0 communication is like a conversation, responses to short electronic messages and postings are given rapidly, often without any serious thought being given to the relevant issues or questions. Web 2.0 is all about acting — and reacting — in realtime, and the nature of Web 2.0 writing exemplifies this super-heated cadence.
Assuming you are getting nervous about the legal implications of some of the writings being transmitted over these social technologies, you will be interested in the legal cases already emanating from Web 2.0 dynamics, and the related legal risk management technologies, topics to which I turn in my next column.