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July 25th, 2010

Legal Issues (Part 1): Four Unique Challenges of Social Media

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Editor's Note: This post is the first in a series on legal and policy issues related to social media. This series is contributed by Dan Goldman, the attorney who oversees these issues for Mayo Clinic, and comes from a presentation he gave recently to the Minnesota Health Law Institute. You can interact with Dan on Twitter at (@DanielG280).

What are the unique challenges of social media?

Speed. Information moves at light speed on the Internet. Information moves at light speed times ten in social networks. Because of the interconnected nature of social networks, if I post something on my Facebook page, or send out a tweet to my hundreds of followers, who then re-tweet it to their thousands of followers, that piece of information will move across the internet at breathtaking speed. You simply do not have the time to cogitate, react, and control situations that arise in social media the way you do in traditional media, or even on static Internet pages that only a few people see.

Reach. Many individuals have huge social networks consisting of thousands of friends on Facebook, and hundreds, thousands, even millions of followers on Twitter. Top videos on YouTube are viewed millions of times. If Ashton Kutcher is a patient at your hospital, has a bad experience, and decides to say something about it on Twitter, that message will be received by his 4.9 million followers.

Blurring of professional/Public. In my opinion, this is one of the most challenging aspects of social media. Social media is about sharing what is going on in your life, and for most people this includes all aspects of your life. Most social media sites encourage you to provide and display information about where you work, and even if it’s not specifically called for, the very nature of the enterprise (sharing your life) makes it difficult to segment your life in such a way as to distinguish between professional and private endeavors. This creates all sorts of challenges for your brand, and for the professional reputations of your employees. If a nurse at your hospital decides to post pictures of her weekend off-duty drinking exploits on her Facebook page, how does that impact your hospital’s reputation if that is on the same page as her discussion of her day-to-day responsibilities as a pediatric nurse?

Generation of “Lifecasters.” This goes hand in hand with the blurring of professional and public personas discussed above. Those under the age of 25, and who have grown up with social media, have a very different view of privacy than those of us in older demographics. This is the generation of “lifecasters” who are comfortable with and used to broadcasting every aspect of their lives on the internet with large groups of people in their social networks-many of whom they know only tangentially, or have never even met. Spend some time perusing the public profiles of teenagers on Facebook and MySpace and you will quickly see what I mean. Managing that new paradigm--you share every aspect of your life (good, bad, or otherwise) online with everyone you know -- in an industry like healthcare where privacy is a cornerstone, is an enormous challenge.

In Part 2 of the series, Dan will examine "What's unique about health care social media?"

Tags: Legal & Ethical Issues

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