Context is a hell of a thing. That point was driven home to me today when Muti deleted a link without explaining how or why the post was deleted. A social bookmarking site inspired by reddit and Digg but dedicated to content of interest to Africans or those interested in Africa, Muti evolved out of a community that started swapping links and found this useful. Trusted people who are interesting and in the know read interesting things online. Muti enables everyone to see what’s hot or not. It’s like an online link library of what South Africa’s digital pundits think is worth looking at.
Today Muti deleted a post but did so without informing its community. The perceptual effect was that it looked like censorship. Although the content doesn’t belong to Muti (which is essentially a content aggregator) in a medium where freedom is championed and that pushes to open networks, the deletion caused a stir. When you run a social media business and you cock up, you do so directly in the public eye. Online media owners, particularly those of social media, operate in communities where everybody can have and will have a say. And so they should. Let’s face it social media is about leveling the playing fields. Citizen journalism is about restoring power balances that for decades have favoured everyone but the man and woman in the street. The internet makes everyone a publisher, gives everyone a voice. Which is cool and democratic, but it also gets messy.
Speaking to Dave Duarte he said that he agreed that the issue could have been better handled. I loved that. For me it’s always the mark of a great business owner. We all make mistakes, and when we do it’s a matter of putting them right and moving on.
“It is not the first time we have countered these criticisms and we have learned and grown. But everything we have done on Muti has been collaborative, so largely we were just listening to our community. Even our terms and conditions and logo have been co-created with the community. If someone asks us to remove what is essentially their content, we haven’t argued with them. In this instance we deleted without communicating and this is exactly where we admit we erred. In future we will build this into our policy.”
Retractions are a normal but irregular part of media ownership, but in traditional media this is well communicated. In social media less so. Then the social media space is fraught with issues that range from reputation, liable, censorship, privacy and the like. So for emerging media owners it can be a mine field to navigate. If there’s one rule it is that communication is the key. That’s the rock on which social media is built – engagement, communications, connection.
Telling your constituents what you are doing and why can change perceptions and avoid online skirmishes. Let’s face it debate can get hectic online. Social media seems to attract a fair amount of ego factor. Throw anonymity into the mix and there’s an explosive mix of agendas, views and intents. Where everyone is a publisher, but not everyone has to stand by their name there is potential for the darker or shadow side of personalities to emerge.
That’s why the task of social media owners can be fairly fraught as they navigate these and other issues. But the minor skirmishes are a small price to pay for winning the war.
The big battle, in part, is for freedom, connection, communication, information. The ability to connect with whomever you want when you want and engage in a meeting of minds. To say whatever it is you want to say and have the freedom to do so. To be able to compete with the most powerful businesses, brands and media in the world by the very virtue of the fact that you have a connection and the will to be heard.
In this arena censorship should meet with community derision. But when young digital projects err in the public eye, we (myself included) should be a lot more tolerant and forgiving of social media pioneers who are helping to build what could be a great industry for South Africa.
With three new sea cables coming, the telecoms industry facing a revolution, new players on the market and major investment in 2010 underway, access will deliver a boom to the local internet economy. By spending energy building that boom (instead of flaming each other) players in the market could share in a massive offshore market.
UPDATE: For further thought and debate on the Muti issue see Ismail Dhorat's blog: Has muti made a fundamental mistake in community management?