Ethics in the Internet Workplace

Greetings from inside the SEOigloo,

There are currently a number of discussions taking place on the subjects of ethics and professionalism in the places I visit as part of my daily work life; the forums, blogs and social media sites I frequent to keep up with industry best practices, get news and share tips with my Internet colleagues. If you are reading this blog, chances are, the Internet plays an important part of your career, either as a web services provider, web business owner or a professional who networks with peers on the web. Though it is not normally my policy to express strong personal views on touchy subjects on the SEOigloo blog, I don’t believe it will be seen as veering off topic too much here if I spend some time writing about the place in which all of this work activity takes place for all of us – the Internet sites where we are interacting with others as a part of our job. If the Internet has become an integral part of how you support yourself and your family, I would ask you to consider the following:

Let’s imagine: a Jewish American boy whose family escaped to America, land of religious freedom, in the 1940s. He is bright, sweet and beloved by his parents. At school, he has his first encounters with anti-semitic sentiments in the mouths of his classmates who are repeating jokes and slurs they learned at home. In his own home, his parents are weeping over lost loved ones. The boy does his best to rise above these things, and goes on to become a doctor. He lives his life serving the community, and as retirement is approaching, someone tips him off about an Internet forum where he can go to share counsel with colleagues about difficulties in the medical practice. The doctor is thrilled to discover this great resource and becomes an active participant. One day, in a thread about the difficulties of getting insurance companies to reimburse doctors properly, one of his forum friends advises him, “Don’t let those Insurance guys ‘j*w you down’.” The doctor thinks about his old hurts, the heartbreak of his parents, and he wishes he could react to this slur, but he doesn’t want to make a scene. Instead, he goes to his Rabbi who tells him,

“We know that, before we were sent to the gas chambers, we were herded into ghettos. Before we were herded into ghettos, we were made second-class citizens. Before we were made second-class citizens, we were branded with yellow stars. Before we were branded with yellow stars, we were the targets of hateful propaganda. And before we were targeted with propaganda, we were the butt of cruel anti-Semitic jokes: jokes that degraded us, jokes that suggested we were different from our fellow human beings, jokes that separated us from society and ultimately made us ready prey for destruction.”

Let’s imagine: a South African girl, growing up during Apartheid. All of the adults in her life are living in a state of constant humiliation and silent outrage under the rule of their Caucasian overlords. Her father, mother, uncles, aunts are the victims of severe objectification and oppression. One of these uncles is addicted to pornography, finding in it an outlet where he is master, where his whims are served, and where someone is finally at his command. One day, when the uncle is alone with the six year old girl, he shows her his pornography in order to tell her what he plans to do to her. She is assaulted repeatedly, with the images being used as a manual for her assault. She tries to tell her mother, but is given a slap and told never to speak of such things again.

Many years later, the family moves to America, land of freedom. It is a time of hope, and the girl begins college at a prestigious school where she can pursue her love of technology. Academically, she does well, but in her private life, she is plagued with anxiety attacks and a secret eating disorder. One night, she breaks down and tells a small group of her new female friends about the trauma in her childhood. Two of these friends get a bitter, distant look in their eyes as they confess that this is also the story of their childhood. They remember that strange uncle, father, brother, and his pornography, and what they suffered.

In college classes, the young woman is shocked to be taught that in America, land of equality, a sexual assault occurs every 90 seconds, that 64% of woman and child victims are attacked by husbands, relatives, boyfriends or co-workers. She reads the studies of convicted sex offenders and the role of pornography in their crimes. She seeks therapy and tries to make positive strides in her life. She grows up to be a top Internet Marketer, active and respected in her field, in an industry dominated by men. And yet, every week, in the industry forums and social media sites she visits as part of her job, she sees her male on-line colleagues snickering amongst themselves about their pornography use. She considers speaking up, expressing her discomfort, but remembers being punished in childhood for telling the truth. In the end, perhaps it is simply easier to pretend to be ‘one of the guys’.

Let’s imagine: a Muslim boy. His family escapes from their war-torn homeland to America, land of tolerance. His parents throw themselves into running a neighborhood grocery store that the whole family lives above, and are dedicated to making sure all of their children get an education. They are devout people who pass on to their children a deep respect for their faith. In public school, the boy is popular. He is friendly, a great athlete, head of his class. He graduates in the 1990s and begins his career as a real estate agent. On the side, he volunteers his time as a counselor for low income housing opportunities. His dream for the country he loves is that everyone will have the chance to afford a dignified home for their family. He marries, has three wonderful children. Life is good.

In 2001, everything changes. The smiles around town turn into suspicious glares. His wife is afraid to leave the house. He is afraid to send his children to school. His neighborhood place of worship receives a bomb threat. He begins losing contracts. He turns to the online real estate forum he has been a loyal member of, hoping to hear some good news, maybe even get some support. But, everyone on this forum is discussing whether it will be best to round up all the Muslims and put them in camps to protect public safety. He steps away from his computer in fear and shock. His name and his avatar brand him as a terrorist in everyone’s eyes, because of the actions of people he never met. No one knows the love of America he has in his heart. No one asks him. He wonders if these attitudes are permanent now, in the place he has always called home.

When we come to the Internet as a part of our work life, we are standing shoulder to shoulder with the beliefs, backgrounds and psyches of the whole world. We are not sitting in some back room with a few of our like-minded friends. We are working amongst tremendous variety. The man you just sent an email to about a Photoshop technique is a Christian who doesn’t understand why being one makes him fair game for attacks from all sides. The woman you just asked for help in Google’s forum is a Native American who lives with the humiliation of being under a government that celebrates Columbus Day, in honor of a man who murdered and enslaved thousands of innocent people in order to fund his world cruise. The guy running your favorite blog has dyslexia and mild birth defects, and cringes every time someone uses the word ‘retarded’ as a joke, because he remembers all too well the tauntings of childhood.

I have frequently encountered the sentiment that people are too sensitive; that if we watched everything we say, we’d never speak at all. My response to this is that, when in public, thinking before you speak is simply courtesy. It makes the rough road of life smoother for everyone, and certainly more civil.

In the traditional workplace, there are both modes of accepted conduct and actual legislation that govern behavior. The point of these conventions are to protect workers from being humiliated while they are attempting to support themselves and their families. The basic concept is that no one should have to wade through hate speech in order to earn money. Unfortunately, I do not see these ethics being carried over into the new Internet workplace. Perhaps it is the vagueness about whether one is working or socializing when visiting an industry site that is causing this grey area, but there is no question about the fact that one is in public when using public websites. My hope is that people would realize this, and conduct themselves accordingly, rather than wrongly assuming that they are amongst ‘friends’, if that word has come to mean expressing hatred without restraint.

Last July, I wrote a post entitled The Isms of SM, recording my shock at the abundant bigotry and sexism I was witnessing in the most popular Social Media-oriented websites. At present, there are several discussions going on that I believe tie into this subject, and I will list some links here to:

Cre8asite

Digital Point

Sphinn

My vision of the Internet workplace is a simple one: an atmosphere in which the world’s people can relate professionally to one another without fear of being wounded over issues of genetics, creed, political affiliation or sex. The success that hateful people enjoy when they gain notoriety by sensationalizing their own hatred on Digg, on Reddit, or on any other public website is an unfortunate endorsement of unacceptable and wounding behavior. I would like to urge the owners and moderators of such sites to listen when individuals or groups attest that they are being targeted or dishonored and to take appropriate actions to forbid hate speech within that entity. I would urge anyone for whom the Internet is a workplace to understand the necessity of professional public conduct in order to create a humane working environment for everyone.

I think many of us experience an urge to be silent when we encounter discrimination or hatred when ‘others’ are targeted, or perhaps even more so, when we are the target. Very often, the price of speaking up can be to bring down an avalanche of criticism on one’s own head. Two of modern times’ most heroic humanitarian reformers, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas K. Gandhi, were assassinated for quietly insisting that people have an inherent right to live lives free of hatred. It is no wonder if anyone is concerned about the consequences of calling hateful things hateful. Yet, what if these men had kept silent?

I hope this article has given Internet workers something to think about. We are talking about old bad habits in a brave new world. I would value hearing your opinions on this subject of ethics in the Internet workplace.

4 Responses to “Ethics in the Internet Workplace”

  1. on 18 Oct 2007 at 4:57 pm tinkerbellchime

    Miriam–Your stories are very touching, and I can’t think of a better way to highlight the points that you are making. We all need to start being more responsible when it comes to what we say and do. Of course, saying is doing. Thanks for another great ‘thinking post.’ You keep us all in line, in a good way.

  2. on 18 Oct 2007 at 6:56 pm Lori

    Wow, Miriam, you cover a lot of ground in this sobering post. I had to read it a few times to really absorb what you are saying.

    It’s true, the internet has given humans a new way to hurt each other. There are no easy answers. I hope that people like the ones you used as examples are able to have strong support systems to weather the hurtful things they see and hear around them.

    I know for my part, I work really hard to not take things personally, especially attacks against Christianity. Actually, I recently had an experience that could have been much worse if I hadn’t decided to find out the “why” behind the insult. You can read about it here:

    Can Atheists and Christians Ever Get Along?

    Thank you for being willing to say things that are tough to say and even harder for others to hear. You are very brave.

  3. on 18 Oct 2007 at 8:49 pm admin

    Christina,
    Thank you so much for taking the time to comment on this, and I’m glad if the post was at-least something good to think about. In your work, you are helping people to learn about culture in a very positive way. I think that helps!
    Miriam

  4. on 18 Oct 2007 at 8:56 pm admin

    Wow, Lori,
    That was an amazing little post. You were very brave to write the fellow back and ask why he had written to you in such a hostile manner. The knee-jerk reaction of many would be to simply respond in kind, epithets flying! But look what happened because of your straightforward manner. You have a Digg friend, and have, at the very least, demonstrated to this man that Christians can be nice people. Perhaps he didn’t know that before.

    Peaceful talks of this kind are what I would love to see ‘enemies’ engage in. It accomplishes so much more – lets us see the human in the other person, allaying our fears that difference is a threat.

    I’m glad you liked my article, and that you shared that link. A great story.
    Miriam

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