As has I’m sure become obvious, I am quite enthusiastic about the advocacy opportunities of social media for nonprofit organizations–blogs, photo and file sharing, social networking. In my own practice, I’m more connected with my students and better able to share content, solicit feedback, and develop deep relationships thanks to my use of social media. I think the possibilities for nonprofits are immense, in terms of bringing in new donors, connecting in new ways with clients, and raising the profile of their advocacy issues.
BUT, and it’s a significant but, I remain concerned about how social workers will navigate these new technologies without compromising our ethical standards. It’s certainly not the first time that we’ve had to adapt our ethical strictures to new sets of challenges: the advent of videorecording and cellular phones and laptop computers all raised issues about informed consent and confidentiality in slightly different ways than in the past. I am confident that we can find ways to work within these emerging technologies while remaining faithful to our profession’s ethical code, but what concerns me most is that I don’t see much discussion of the real dilemmas here–and we know that, in ethics, what we don’t consciously debate often gets us into trouble.
As with all ethical dilemmas, there are no easy answers (if there were, we wouldn’t have dilemmas, just crises of moral courage!), but here are some of the questions I’ve been asking myself. I’d love to start a dialogue about this with social workers and social media types–how do we strike the right balance? A former student and I had this discussion about a week ago, and she raised some ideas that I hadn’t considered. Social workers out there using social media, how are you staying true to our ethics?
Every social media expert advises that success requires an infusion of ‘personality’ in order to connect with one’s followers. I get this–I see that I receive much more response to tweets or Facebook updates, for example, that include some personal tidbit–but it makes me wonder, when does this raise the risk of dual relationships? How much disclosure is too much disclosure? How do we engage with our targets without blurring those boundaries in potentially harmful ways? Should you ever ‘friend’ a client? Now that the opportunity exists, is it harmful to the professional relationship to decline?
What about confidentiality? While any ethical social worker would refrain from including personal details about clients in social media interactions, is it ethical to, for example, include some of the outline of a client interaction on a personal blog? Assuming that all identifying information is changed, does that make it okay? What about if the blog receives ad revenue that goes directly to the social worker?
Should social workers be allowed to blog or post or tweet about their organizational life, including frustrations with their practice setting? You see employees do this all the time, from “TGIF” Facebook updates on a Friday afternoon to generic “so sick of my boss” comments on different sites, but, given social workers’ obligation to our employers, are we forbidden from engaging in this kind of catharsis?
Where do we draw the line between ‘work’ social media use and ‘personal’? If you’re at work updating the agency’s Facebook page and you see that a real-life friend of yours, who’s also a fan of your agency, has posted something about her life that you feel deserves a response, can you respond on ‘company’ time in your official capacity representing the organization, or is that a ‘friend’ activity that needs to happen on your own time?
Given the viral and unpredictable nature of social media use, how can we really ever receive informed consent from our clients for their participation? For example, a client gives permission for a photo to be posted on the agency’s blog, but then the blog gets tracked back by several other blogs, and someone tweets the post…and this is exactly what your organization wants, in terms of the response from the community, but now many more people have seen it, and in different contexts, and probably with adding their own commentary…and that’s not what you told the client when you asked permission.
Those are the dilemmas I have wrestled with so far. What do you think? What am I missing? What guidance can we expect from our Code of Ethics in these areas of continual evolution? What should be our guide when the Code is inadequate?