Social media demands a change in the way we judge people-case study of US politician

By October 5, 2012 3 Comments

The Republican Party of Maine has been attacking Democratic State Senate candidate Colleen Lachowicz for playing World of Warcraft and for saying on user forums that she enjoyed the violence of the game.

Ars Technica have written up the whole affair and the flow of their article brilliantly exposes the challenges that social media bring to our assessment of people. The first part of the article reprints Colleen’s violent quotes (“I love poisoning and stabbing! It is fun.” and “I can kill stuff without going to jail. There are some days when this is more necessary than others”) which made me wonder if she really should be running for Senate. Then they have an update with a comment from a Republican Party spokesman making the point that she probably spent 22 hours+ a week playing World of Warcraft and questioning her work ethic, making things sound worse still for Colleen. But then the article shifted to focus on Colleen’s defence, pointing out that many American’s spend 22 hours+ a week watching TV or playing golf without having their work ethic questioned and giving the last word to Colleen in which she (reasonably) attacks the Republicans for targeting her for her hobbies rather than talking about policy and their record in government.

Based on the totality of the article Colleen doesn’t sound like a bad person, but anyone who only read the first part of the article, or only saw the Republican Party leaflet could easily have come to a different conclusion. That’s dangerous for Colleen and dangerous for society as a whole.

This new danger comes on the one hand from people being open about what they do and think on user forums and social networks and on the other hand from unscrupulous opponents going through what they’ve written and selectively publicising anything that might be damaging. These attacks work because we (the general public) learned to form our perceptions of people in a world where very little information was available and jumping to conclusions was our only real option. I think there is also an assumption that people, particularly politicians, work hard to suppress any information that might be damaging and that if anything does come to light it is therefore most likely just the tip of the iceberg.

I hope and expect that the media and general public will come to understand that we live in (or are moving to, depending on your generation) a world where information about everybody is abundant and we can all do much better than make snap judgements. It requires a little investment of time, but in this new world we are able to look at the totality of somebody’s online presence and make much better judgements about them than we were able to before. An online presence is built up over years and increasingly covers all aspects of a person’s life, making it very hard to fake. This stands in contrast to making judgements after meeting people for an hour or two, a short period of time during which it is much easier to hide things. This logic applies to any assessment of new people, including whether we should vote for them, employ them, have them as friends or go out with them.

Companies in the tech industry already often look at the blogs of potential employees to assess their passion and knowledge, and some interpret the absence of a blog as a bad sign. There is analogous information to be gained about candidates’ social skills and networks from their presence on Twitter and maybe Facebook. This is not a bad thing so long as employers understand that people’s whole lives are on show and being caught on camera once isn’t a sign that the candidate is a multiple offender.

This change in attitude and/or perception has a lot of promise, but won’t be easy. I’m talking about a shift away from a simple world where we only knew about the good things that most people did to a world where we are asked to accept them warts and all from the beginning. There will of course be some losers too – those people who have more warts than goodness will be cruelly exposed. That’s not necessarily a bad thing though, and over time standards of behaviour will improve as a result.

If we don’t get this shift then people will simply stop sharing on social media for fear of being on the receiving end of the sort of attack that Colleen suffered and we will return to the old world where we simply know much less about people. This is a realistic possibility, and if it happens I think we will all be poorer for it. But I’m optimistic, I think that collectively we are smart enough to understand the benefits of greater open-ness and make the adjustments necessary to ensure it is here to stay.