I've been thinking a lot about online trust this week -- and I wish I didn't have to. My email contacts were victims of a spam event of the worst kind -- one that strains the foundations of the trustful relationships we so carefully create in our connected world.
It wasn't porn or anything unsavory -- while that would not have been better, at least it would have been less believable! Instead, this attack cut to the very essence of my professionalism. My email account was hacked and, using my address book, zillions of my friends and colleagues were spammed with invitations to join something called Fast Pitch Networking. You can find their site using the usual search tools. I won't be linking to them.
The problem is I don't know who they are. I never heard of them before this. I certainly haven't recommended them to anyone. But, according to the spam email, I recommended joining their site to my contacts -- possibly inviting even you. Perhaps Fast Pitch is unaware of the problem and is a victim too. But they haven't returned my phone calls, I still don't know them, and I certainly don't trust them.
Here's the rub. I learned about this spam over the weekend when a respected colleague and neighbor came over to thank me for the invitation. "I usually don't join these kinds of things," said this person whose trust and friendship I value, "but because you recommended it, I decided to give it a shot."
I was horrified! He sent me the email and sure enough, it appeared to have been sent from my account -- my name was all over it. I ran home and sent out an email to my connections to let them know about it. Many respondents told me they did join the site on my recommendation. Why did they join a site they had never heard of? Because someone they trusted said it would benefit them. For all of you who received that wretched invite, my apologies.
My quick response may have helped remedy the situation. I received a slew of positive responses indirectly assuring me that our trust had not been broken. One witty comeback suggested "Someone seems to have confused the holiday season with the "spam" season." Perhaps it is the season -- news reports today tell of data breaches at Gawker Media, McDonald's and Walgreen's leading to possible spam outbreaks. Big players all, but still, it's an event to which I'd rather not be invited nor attend!
I also heard from people who had not received or read the spam email invite, meaning I had now troubled them with an errant communication of no value -- something a professional never wants to do. "I am disappointed I did not get invited to your spam party. Maybe next virus! Happy Holidays."
This whole fiasco served to remind me of the importance of trust -- online and offline. In an age of lightspeed social broadcast, one fell tweet can inadvertently reveal a confidential matter; a mistaken email click can turn a snarky comment into a ballistic missive; an ill-considered photo upload can become a personal or professional land mine.
Trust is a hard thing to win and an easy thing to lose. It represents a fragile balance between understanding who people are, respecting the give and take of relationships, and relies on the belief that a trusted person will not do something that undermines trust. While I did not cause of this mishap, I had to manage it quickly and carefully. It was my name -- and reputation -- on a recommendation broadcast to hundreds of people. People I know, people I trust, people I work with and work for. To breach that trust risks serious personal and professional damage.
The need to create, manage and protect social trust pervades many industries that are based on accountability. For example, consider the impact of social media on HIPPA rules. The American Medical Association (AMA) released long-awaited guidelines for physicians using social media just last month to help them understand the impact of social media use upon patient privacy. The new policy encourages physicians to:
- Use privacy settings to safeguard personal information and content to the fullest extent possible on social networking sites.
- Routinely monitor their own Internet presence to ensure that the personal and professional information on their own sites, and content posted about them by others, is accurate and appropriate.
- Maintain appropriate boundaries of the patient-physician relationship when interacting with patients online and ensure patient privacy and confidentiality is maintained.
- Consider separating personal and professional content online.
- Recognize that actions online and content posted can negatively affect their reputations among patients and colleagues, and may even have consequences for their medical careers.
This is very good general advice for all of us. Let my experience be a reminder: use social media tools responsibly. They are very powerful. They allow us to build and sustain trusted relationships over time, across business, social and cultural boundaries, connecting at light speed. And in an instant, destroy them.