Like Dennis Miller used to say (back when he was funny), “I don’t want to get off on a rant here ..” But the opinions expressed below are my own and not Zemoga’s. So hopefully that qualifies things a little bit.
The title of this post is a play on Stewart Brand’s famous quote, “Information Wants to be Free”, originally uttered way back in 1984. You would think in the intervening 25 years that we would have seen that truth permeate our society. The continuing struggle to combat media piracy, the rise of the Open Source movement and entire generations that have grown up with easy access to both information and distribution platforms , should have rendered this entire discussion moot, right?
Not so fast. The twitosphere (?) was on fire yesterday with the news that ESPN had banned it’s journalists from tweeting about anything but ESPN when it comes to sports (This was later clarified when ESPN released their social media guidelines. The actual policy is not quite as draconian but it is still pretty restrictive). Earlier this week the US Marines issued a ban on Corps members using social media due to security reasons (although this hasn’t stopped the DOD from using social media for any number of other purposes including recruiting and propaganda). And of course, there are numerous other organizations that are grappling with Twitter in specific and social media in general.
While no one is going to argue with the Marine edict, the ESPN approach is much more questionable. It seems like only a matter of time before the ACLU or some other Freedom of Speech advocates challenge this type of company policy. After all, how can such edicts be enforced? Twitter may be verifying accounts now but what’s to prevent Stuart Scott or some other on-air personality creating accounts with an “anonymous” handle and tweeting away? And, again, it seems like only a matter of time until there’s a backlash against this type of restrictive policy from the channel’s users. Athletes like Shaquille O’Neal, David Ortiz and Tony Hawk have won a lot of affection and applause for directly engaging with their fans. The ESPN approach makes the company look like a faceless corporation, uninterested in engaging with their viewers and unwilling to let their employees speak their minds. A surprising misstep for a company that has excelled over the years at engaging with its target audience.
ESPN is not alone in this type of struggle. Surprisingly, many of the major sports leagues don’t even have social media policies. Ditto for many sports sponsors. While some may argue with the approach, ESPN should at least be commended for trying to define an approach to emerging communications platforms.
Numerous industries have issues with social media. Some deal with regulatory issues (Pharma and Finance). Some institutional (Cable and Automotive have both struggled and shined in this area). Ultimately, the companies who are winning the battle are the companies who realize that trying to control employee self expression is like trying to herd cats. Brogan and other commentators have rightly noted that this is a wrongheaded approach to social media. But it’s ultimately an unworkable one as well. Someday soon, the network will have an on air personality who is too stubborn, too principled or simply to popular to comply with this policy and then the floodgates will open.
Tweets want to be free.
So does speech. Something else originators of restrictive communications policies should remember.