Digital Communication, Ethics, and Freedom of Speech
Posted by knoblockj
It’s common knowledge that people are on their best “verbal” behavior in certain social situations. For example, when a person is at work, they know to be careful with how they talk, what they say, and how they present themselves to their supervisors and customers. Yet, at home people can relax, be themselves, and share their feelings, thoughts, opinions, and beliefs with their close friends and family members.
Ethical lines can somehow get blurred when using other methods of communication. Steven B. Katz and Vicki W. Rhodes, in their article, Beyond Ethical Frames of Technical Relations, as published in Rachel Spilka’s Digital Literacy For Technical Communication, gave an example of how employees of a company refer to clients as “handicapped” or “disabled” when the company would never publicly refer to clients in that way, which it considers demeaning. The employees are most likely not trying to demean the clients, rather, they use terms that are easier in a digital format. Often, email is used for it’s instant transfer of information. A person can simply cast their thoughts into the keyboard and hit “send.” Ethically, the companies publicists would frown.
Let’s consider other forms of ethical violations. Facebook users list their place of employment on their profile. When the user’s face appears, often you can see who your mutual friends are and their place of employment without even going to their page. Therefore, they are representatives of their employer in the digital world. Should that person complain about work, or use derogatory language to describe customers, that could present ethical concerns. Yet that user is simply using free speech to complain to their own “inner circle,” on their own time. Is it right or wrong? If someone has a really bad day, a customer was rude and inconsiderate and the employee takes to Facebook to unload, does the company have an obligation to address it? Do they have the right to address it? After all, their name is associated. I once read a thread of conversation about a controversial topic. One particular individual was spewing hate, being vulgar and offensive. I hovered the curser over his name and his place of employment came up. Not once have I ever visited that business. Very purposefully, I have avoided that business, simply because of what one employee posted on Facebook. Does an employer have the right to limit a user’s content if they are employed at their company?
Facebook is becoming a popular business tool, but email tends to be a significant method of communication for businesses. One reason I like to use email and other forms of digital communication is for a “paper trail.” I can look back and remember what I said, what I promised, or other important details. I also have proof that I addressed a topic, followed through, or took action. Often, if I talk on the phone about something important, I’ll follow up with an email that says, “As per our phone conversation, I wanted to recap our next steps…..” That way I could always pull the email if there is ever a “he said – she said” type of situation.
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The authors, however, address a much deeper form of ethics in digital technology, and that is that our digital selves do not always resemble our real selves – our digital being (p. 238). Email creates a relationship between a user and technology. Interestingly, email is a popular form of workplace communication with which the users develop “relationships” using email, even if the recipient and the sender never actually speak, or the recipient is just a couple cubicles down (p. 243). The authors ask if it’s possible to remove one’s self from the email communication, and to keep the message “neutral.” They ask if that is a fair ethical standard for a company to expect of their employees (p. 250). My answer is – not always. Consider shooting emails back and forth, discussing important details of a project, and the other person has an alternate motivation or goal. How can a person remove themselves from the content of the email when they evoke emotions. What if you’re protective of your work, putting your whole self into the projects, and someone on the other end of the email isn’t as committed as you are?
Another consideration is that person-less email can often be read as cold, impersonal, rude, or negative. My rule of thumb is to always try to have my email communication take on a friendly, positive tone (which is not always easy to do if I’m frustrated). I like to be somewhat personable, to make the recipient feel valued, important, or in the very least – not bothered. That means that I am not keeping my email impersonal and detaching myself from the communication. At some companies, would that mean I am acting unethically? I like to think that is professional and reflects well on the company, but that’s just my opinion.
Katz, S. B. & Rhodes, V. W. (2010). Beyond ethical frames of technical relations. In R. Spilka (Ed.), Digital literacy for technical communication: 21st century theory and practice. (pp.230 – 256). New York, NY. Routledge.
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