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Respect & Civility: Is It Possible Online?

Over the past year, we’ve been bombarded with numerous accounts of crass behavior online and off.  Whether it is foul-mouthed celebrities and talk show hosts or personal attacks within the blogosphere, it is clear that the level of discourse needs to be significantly improved.  

For corporations and other large organizations thinking about engaging their stakeholders via social media, the low quality of some online dialogue is a major reason they are loath to take the plunge.  Even if they jump in, they are afraid that:

-Their foes will dominate the conversation

-They won’t be respected for attempting to engage in rational two-way dialogue

-Organizational or corporate spokespeople/bloggers will be subject to personal attacks or slander online

I’m a strong believer in the power of online conversation to humanize people and large organizations.  However, are we, as citizens, ready to treat everyone with respect and civility – even if we have a different perspective?

An article published in the New York Times yesterday got me thinking about this issue. The Times related the story of technology blogger Kathy Sierra, who has received death threats and other inappropriate comments on her blog and elsewhere. Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia and Tim O’Reilly, who coined the term “Web 2.0,” have called for bloggers to adhere to a code of conduct to regulate online dialogue.  

Is this the answer?  Some say yes, while others believe a code is not necessary. However, this debate is particularly relevant as healthcare industry stakeholders from hospitals, pharmaceutical companies and managed care organizations think about how to engage the blogosphere and social media.  If they enter this space will they have a good experience?

Clearly, corporations and large organizations in healthcare and beyond need to understand that their foray into social media will not always be pleasant.  They have many foes who will spend a lot of time and effort dissecting their comments and refuting their arguments.  This is good because healthy debate is necessary and welcome.  However, will the tone be respectful and civil – on both sides?

Only time will tell, but recent events remind us that the online seas entering them should be prepared to swallow a bit of salt water.

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