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Newsletter > November 2009 > "THE LEGAL AND PROFESSIONAL CONSIDERATIONS OF SOCIAL NETWORKING – HOW FACEBOOK, TWITTER AND OTHER SOCIAL NETWORKING SITES PROVIDE OPPORTUNITY (AND RISK) FOR FRATERNAL ORGANIZATIONS"
THE LEGAL AND PROFESSIONAL CONSIDERATIONS OF SOCIAL NETWORKING – HOW FACEBOOK, TWITTER AND OTHER SOCIAL NETWORKING SITES PROVIDE OPPORTUNITY (AND RISK) FOR FRATERNAL ORGANIZATIONS
Craig Moore, Armstrong Teasdale LLP, firstname.lastname@example.org
It seems beyond question that the world of social networking has taken root in the Fraternity and sorority houses of North America. Sites like Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and Linked-In, (among many others) provide socializing and networking opportunities for members of fraternal organizations that just five years earlier seemed unfathomable. Facebook alone (now with over 230 million individual users) now permeates the landscape of college campuses to such an extent that it is almost impossible to find a national fraternity or sorority that does not have a Facebook group, and indeed, many chapter houses also have their own pages specifically for the members from their school.
The questions that the leaders of fraternal organizations must face when considering the use and promotion of social networking sites amongst their members are many. From determining whether to have their sites open to any who wish to join, or instituting a member confirmation process (and determining who will undertake that confirmation function), to considering the content that is appropriate for a chapter’s site, there are many things to consider. While this article cannot hope to provide an exhaustive list of pitfalls and opportunities presented by social networking sites, it hopefully will provide an overview of the world of social networking, and a place to start in considering how your fraternal organization wants to interact with this new world.
What is it and how did it begin?
Social networking services focus on building online communities of people who share interests and/or activities, or who are interested in exploring the interests and activities of others. Most social network services are web-based and provide a variety of ways for users to interact, such as e-mail and instant messaging services. Social networking has encouraged new ways to communicate and share information. Social networking websites are being regularly used by hundreds of millions of people. The main types of social networking services are those which contain category divisions (such as former school-year classmates), means to connect with friends (usually with self-description pages) and a recommendation system linked to trust. (Wikipedia).
While the concept of “social networking” has roots which go back hundreds of years, the concept of social networking online has much more contemporary origins. Unable to pinpoint when online social networking was “born,” it is safe to say that it has become mainstream in recent years. Facebook was born on the campus of Harvard in 2004 and was originally envisioned to combine the content of college “face books” into an electronic medium. Originally open only to college students, Facebook became open to the general public in 2006. In less than five years since its start, Facebook now has over 230 million members and untold billions of posts. Over 96% of students with online access report that they have at least tried social networking technologies and 71% say they use it weekly.
Is it important?
Whether social networking is important to your organization is really dependent upon how you use it. In its simplest form, social networking is just a new channel to communicate, one that may have significant additional value over old channels. Social networking is mobile, it can keep your organization in contact with literally thousands of current and former members, and it allows you to circulate information about events and areas of interest to your house in a very timely and cost effective way. Moreover, in today’s environmentally conscious world, it is important to note that communication through social networking provides environmental as well as economic benefits.
Should members of fraternal organizations be concerned with when using social networks?
As with most forms of communication, the use of a healthy dose of common sense will prevent most problems that you will encounter. That being said, there are several areas of legal and professional concern that you (and your members) should be aware of when using social networking services.
First, remember that what is being posted is public, and is potentially being broadcast to hundreds, if not thousands, of people. This concern is important to remember on a multitude of levels, but perhaps none more important than the legal implications that could face a house for an inappropriate statement posted by a member. Despite being social in nature and easily accessible for communications amongst members, an inappropriate or offensive remark directed at another organization or individual could have consequences for your member or organization as a whole.
Aside from the potential reputational damage that could occur as a result of an inappropriate comment, the legal ramifications are real. Lawsuits have been prosecuted, and won, on the basis of slander, defamation, and false accusation, for statements made on social networking sites. What may seem to be an “innocent prank” or a well meaning joke amongst members about a rival house or one of its members could expose both the house and its members to liability. Posts on social networking sites meet all the qualifications of publication and dissemination which trigger legal exposure, and even if the post is not made by the fraternal organization itself, in certain instances, the statements of its members could be attributed to the house and provide the possibility of legal exposure to the entire group.
Second, aside from being concerned about the legal ramifications of the statements of members, fraternal organizations should also realize that the professional aspirations of their members can also be affected by inappropriate social networking conduct. Posts, status updates, and personal information posted on Facebook or Twitter are generally searchable by most Internet search engines, including Google and Yahoo, and potential employers are using these tools during their consideration of prospective applicants.
Even in the three short years since Facebook has been fully open to the public, there have already been countless numbers of job seekers who have unknowingly been the victims of their own inappropriate posts. Employers who find treasure troves of embarrassing or inappropriate pictures, statements, or video online often end their consideration of that applicant before going further, and without the applicant knowing why they were not considered for the job. It is important for members of fraternal organizations to remember this as they go forward into the working world. Unlike Vegas, what happens on Facebook does not always stay on Facebook.
Is it worth the risk?
Considering the potential legal and professional ramifications of statements by members, some fraternal organizations may wonder whether their current presence on social networking sites is worth the risk. While that question can only be answered by the organization itself, it is important to remember that there are also substantial benefits. Aside from providing an easy avenue for communication with current and former members, Chapter-sponsored sites provide alumni and current members an easy opportunity to network and learn more about business opportunities. These sites also provide alumni an easy manner through which they can reconnect with their brothers or sisters who they have long since lost touch with and potentially provide real benefits by way of business connections and referrals. In short, the benefits can, and often do, outweigh the risks.
What should your organization do?
Undoubtedly, many of the members of your organization are already active on social networking sites and by no means should you consider asking them to stop. What chapters can do is provide reminders to their members of the potential pitfalls of their social networking activities and recommend courses of action. If you do not have one already, consider implementing a social networking policy for your members, and be sure to enforce that policy with respect to posts on your chapter-specific page. There are professionals who can assist you in developing your policy if you need assistance. You might also consider asking chapter alumni to “review” the pages of active members who are seeking professional employment, so that someone with an unbiased eye and experience in the professional world can provide current members feedback on the appropriateness of their page’s content. This alone could provide a helpful networking opportunity for your members.
At the end of the day, social networking sites provide fraternal organizations, and their members, with an amazing opportunity to expand their networks and interact on a more real time and personal basis. However, members should always remember that they, and their organization, can be affected by their social networking presence.