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Democratization of the Internet: Lawyers Take Note

by Larry Bridgesmith, JD | CEO of Legal Alignment

You would have to have been on vacation and disconnected from all news to not know about the upheaval at Reddit over the last two weeks.

First, Reddit is the tenth most visited website on the Internet. 164,000,000 registered users check it to review and comment on topical treatments of that day's happenings. In June 2015 it enjoyed 7 billion page views. That's more traffic than Netflix, Pinterest and the New York Times.

Reddit calls itself "the front page of the Internet". Its Internet service provides news, articles and information on every topic "under the sun". However, Reddit is a user managed source of information. Thousands of volunteer "moderators" oversee the postings on thousands of topical category webpages. Reddit doesn't pay the moderators, but benefits economically from the quality and quantity of the work they do for free. In late 2014 the company was valued at $500 million.

The company became a leading story on most every TV and radio news broadcast, newspaper front page and news magazine. Time magazine did a three page "spread" on the company and its dilemma which became very public on July 2, 2015.

On that date, Reddit essentially was shut down when the unpaid moderators banded together to "boycott" the information service and brought web traffic to a stop. What did they protest? Pay. Benefits?

They protested the CEO's firing of the Reddit executive who interfaced with the moderators. Without warning Victoria Taylor was fired and when the moderators found out about it, they shut down Reddit.

An emergency board meeting was called and two days later, the CEO was the one who cleaned out her office and was escorted out the door.

That's the power of social media, for better or worse.

Ignoring it at your peril can be career suicide. Everyone has a social media fingerprint and the connected world can find out a great deal about you whether you know it or not. Of course, LinkedIn let's you know how many people are checking your profile, but that can be done anonymously.

Have you Googled your name and found that news article in which you were mentioned 15 years ago? Arrest records, sex offender registration and other unflattering information is freely available on the Internet.

More importantly, virtually every professional has several Internet trackers which capture and report information about you regardless of its truth or falsity. For doctors there are any number of professional reference services and search engines.

For lawyers, there are the listings we use to carefully groom our professional reputation and "brand", like Martindale-Hubble, Best Lawyers, Law Dragon and SuperLawyer. Some of these are peer reviewed and others are self-promotional.

Most lawyers are shocked to learn there is a "crowd sourcing" search engine for lawyers that ranks them on a ten point scale based on their own profile building, solicited client and peer references as well as unsolicited references that aren't always flattering. AVVO.com provides a social media platform to complain about lawyers as well as compliment them.

A Florida lawyer brought suit in Washington state against AVVO for posting a damaging client criticism alleging the company was guilty of defamation. On July 6, 2015, the Washington Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court that the claim was not "actionable" because in the age of social media a web posting is no different than speaking in the town square. The First Amendment protects such speech whether true or not, and whether the critic was in fact a client or not.

Taylor Swift's famous Tweet that forced Apple to reverse engines within 24 hours to make the company recognize that not paying artists for their work was no different than customers using, but not paying for, iPhones. Less than 140 characters sent to 60,000,000 followers caused the world's largest and most profitable company change its business plan "on a dime".

For all these reasons we ignore social media and our Internet fingerprint at great peril.

This duty to communicate with the "crowd" cannot be delegated. Ask the former Reddit CEO.

This duty cannot be inauthentically exercised. What brought Mubarak of Egypt and Quadafi to ignominious or even fatal ends? Social media toppled their tyrannical dynasties and they neither understood nor appreciated what happened to them or the speed with which they were ousted. No voting or public polling was used. The radical democratization of social media delivered the voice of the people.

In an age when a Tweet gets faster action than customer service calls, the power of social media galvanizes like minded people around the world in a matter of seconds. It can be the 24/7/365 conscience of the world. Social media never rests and is always vigilant.

Businesses, politicians, leaders of any organization (professional, religious, commercial, non-profit, local or global) now can be held accountable by radical democracies that can mobilize instantly for good or ill.

This week, the Ashley Madison website was hacked. Its hackers warned that unless this service was shut down (which matched up philandering husbands, wives and significant others to enjoy a secret sexual fling with a stranger) its millions of users would be exposed, their credit card information shared and the evidence of their "secret dalliances" publicized.

Behaving badly in secret is both enabled by technology and can be exposed by the same technology.

Despotic rulers, duplicitous leaders, mega businesses and local organizations can be brought low by the power of social media.

Lawyers who believe social media has no impact on their practice, professionalism or reputation should read carefully the analysis of Monica Zent in a recent Bloomberg BNA BigLaw post.

Can you afford to ignore it? You decide.

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