Banning Social Media Is Counterproductive – Search Engine Watch (SEW)

2 11 2009
Erik Qualman

Banning Social Media Is Counterproductive

By Erik Qualman, Search Engine Watch, Nov 2, 2009
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Banning social media in the office is almost becoming trendy lately. It reminds me of the 1984 movie “Footloose,” where a town banned rock music and dancing.

In today’s version, instead of starring Kevin Bacon, perhaps either Biz Stone (co-founder of Twitter) or Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) could star in the lead role. Just as we now look back on “Footloose” as being rather silly, the same will probably apply to these social media bans.

“USA Today” reported October 22 that 54 percent of companies completely block Facebook, whereas another 35 percent apply some form of limits. That leaves only 11 percent that don’t put any limitations on Facebook use in the work force.

Why does this feel like déjà vu? Probably because a few years ago many companies banned Web mail (Yahoo, Hotmail, AOL, etc.) in the work place. A few years before that, companies banned the Internet at the work place.

And it’s not just companies that placed these types of bans; teachers often ban mobile phones in the classroom as well. Is this the right thing to do?

Banning social media at work is:

  • Analogous to banning the Internet.

  • Analogous to banning the phone because you might make a personal phone call.

  • Analogous to banning paper and pens because you might pass a note that isn’t related to class or work.

  • Could potentially signal to workers and future recruits that your company just doesn’t “get it.”

Wasting Time on Facebook Actually Makes You More Productive

“People who do surf the Internet for fun at work — within a reasonable limit of less than 20 percent of their total time in the office — are more productive by about 9 percent than those who don’t,” according to Dr. Brent Coker, from the Department of Management and Marketing at The University of Melbourne.

Before we dive back into the workplace, the teacher example is an interesting dilemma to review. Some phones have such a high pitch ringer that the teachers can’t hear them while the students’ younger ears can hear them. But, is this really a technology issue, question, or problem? Or is it a historic problem that teachers have been wrestling with since the first school opened?

Whether a student is whispering, day dreaming, sleeping, passing a note, doodling, or sending a text, it’s all the same thing. The teacher isn’t reaching them. Recently, Lee Scott, Wal-Mart’s chairman, said for his first four years on the job he was looking for new critics, when all along he should have been looking to produce a better product or store experience.

Capturing students’ attention has been historically difficult. The teacher’s task isn’t an envious one. However, the really good teachers have been able to overcome the hurdles presented them.

If you ban today’s technology, does it solve the problem? Probably not. Also, texting is probably less intrusive than whispering, or passing notes, as it doesn’t affect the others in the room as much.

Also, a good student might suffer as they may be potentially looking up something on their mobile browser that the teacher is covering to either fact check or see if something visual clicks with their brain in a way that’s better than how the teacher is attempting to explain it. Or, if they have already grasped the concept, why shouldn’t they be able to learn something else new and exciting at their fingertips?

Some teachers may benefit by leveraging this technology in the classroom; students have grown up with technology. Rather than being lectured at, they’re used to dynamic interaction with various technologies and sources to provide possible answers.

It also depends on the age of the student. This is applied more easily to college students than say middle school students, where anything that could possibly distract attention from the teacher isn’t good (it’s also another reason why our teachers should be paid more as it’s one of the most difficult jobs around and now teachers have the added challenge of keeping abreast of new technology).

Company Restrictions on Social Media

Banning something like social media could send the wrong message to employees and potential recruits as a company that “doesn’t get it.” Also, how can companies learn what to do in social media if they aren’t allowing their employees to even use the tools?

All new tools have a learning curve. When people started using phones in the work place they had to be educated not to make 30 minutes worth of personal calls, call internationally, or speak too loud.

More recently, when e-mail was introduced, classes were held in the workplace on tonality of e-mails, not replying to all, not wasting much of the workday on e-mail, etc. With social media, similar instruction and guidance should be given to the work force. For example Facebook IM chatting with your friends may not be the best use of your time, and it will make it difficult for you to achieve your goals, nor is it wise to status update “glad I’m out of the jail I call work for today.”

An employee either produces desired results or doesn’t. If one employee reads Wikipedia during their break time but produces 40 sales per week and another employee reads books outside during their break but only produces 15 sales per week, which employee would you keep? If you’re in the business of making money, you’d keep the one producing 40 sales per week.

“Short and unobtrusive breaks, such as a quick surf of the Internet, enables the mind to rest itself, leading to a higher total net concentration for a days work, and as a result, increased productivity,” Coker said.

Some employees might benefit from having social media in the work place. If you’re in outbound sales for home insurance it would be helpful to receive a tweet from a friend in California indicating that the wild fires have taken a sharp turn toward Orange County or that the telephone lines are out in Minneapolis. Or to see a user-generated picture or video of the fires taking place that includes a geo locator on them.

Or think about sales in general. What are two of the top rules of sales? Listen and know the customer.

Google isn’t so great at supplying real-time results, but social media certainly is (there’s a reason why deals were cut between Bing, Twitter, Google and Facebook last week). So, if I’m a salesperson about to make a phone call, technorati,, and Wikipedia are helpful tools for figuring out what the heck is being said about this prospect or prospect’s company. Why would you ban tools that are valuable to your work force?

One possible answer: you don’t trust them not to abuse the sites for other reasons. Is that a social media issue? I’d argue it’s a workforce issue.

Also, whether you’re at work or in the classroom, when you treat people like kids by not trusting them, expect them to behave like kids. Is that what you want?

Do you think Apple or Google bans people from these sites? Their stocks are up 140 percent and 79 percent respectively this year. They must be laughing out in Silicon Valley.

Occasionally some bans make sense. For example, a university that bans downloading music on their network because of bandwidth issues is reasonable. Other bans (like those in “Footloose”) are just silly.

Don’t ban social media. In the near future we’ll look back and say “Remember when we used to ban social media? What were we thinking?” Don’t be a dinosaur, because after all, they became extinct.


November 2, 2009
To say that teachers should not ban cell phones from their classrooms is madness. We’ve seen in the media how stupid kids are today with their cell phones (“sexting,” for example). To think that teens are at all capable of restraining themselves from texting, Facebooking, or doing anything else distracting on their new smart phones shows a serious disconnect between the author and kids today. I’m 25, but I can still juxtapose myself into some teenager’s shoes and see clearly what I would be up to if I were still going to boring old high school. Public education is in bad enough shape right now. There is absolutely no upside to allowing in another fortuitous technology which will do nothing to improve their understanding of the class and will in all likelihood make it harder for these kids to concentrate.  

 In short, the minds of the youth today are going down the drain thanks to TV, video games and the Internet (or more accurately, thanks to parents not taking a more active stance in mediating their kids’ use of these technologies). Smart phones are just an extension of all of the above, but in a small hand-held device which can be easily concealed and used in a classroom. There is no benefit to social networking in a classroom. That classroom IS the social network they should be focusing on.

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Mr Curtains

November 2, 2009
I think there needs to be a compromise here. Business are correct in blocking social media, I can say that from my own experience when I was working in a call centre. I was more easily distracted, the quality of email responses I was sending out was considerably low. 
There is no doubt concentration levels are lower. 

 Infact, quite interestingly I work for myself now and block certain sites to prevent distractions. 

 But I agree there probably shouldn’t be a total ban. A compromise of some sort should be achieved. 

 Such as blocking access during peak hours and restoring access during off peak hours.

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Erik Qualman

November 2, 2009
Mr. Curtains:  

 Thanks for reading and commenting. Your note/phrase was of particular interest to me “In fact, quite interestingly I work for myself now and block certain sites to prevent distractions.”  

 You, being self-employed, are in control and put these “blockers” in place. Maybe the compromise for workers is that they are still given the control, but they can ask for, or better yet be given the ability to block certain sites if they don’t have the self-control to avoid them. While others that do have the self-control still have access to everything.  

 This is similar to someone on a diet not having chocolates laying around their desk. Or a chatty cathy turning off their cellphone during working hours. Maybe that is the compromise while still giving the employee the proper freedom to excel.  

 Thanks for contributing!

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Erik Qualman

Erik Qualman is the Global Vice President of Online Marketing for EF Education, headquartered in Lucerne, Switzerland. With more than 26,000 employees in 53 countries, EF Education is the world’s largest private educator.

His book “Socialnomics: How Social Media has changed the way we live and do business” was released from Wiley Publishing in August 2009. Qualman is a frequently requested speaker within the Internet and marketing community and also maintains a social media blog at

Qualman has been highlighted in numerous publications, including: BusinessWeek, AdvertisingAge, USA Today, Forbes, PR Week, Investor’s Business Daily, eWeek, Media Life, Direct Marketing News and Direct Response Magazine. He has also been interviewed on various radio and television outlets. Qualman is also a published fiction author.

Prior to joining EF Education, Qualman helped grow the online marketing and eBusiness functions of Cadillac & Pontiac (1994-97), AT&T (1998-2000), Yahoo (2000-03), EarthLink (2003-05) and Travelzoo (2005-08). Qualman holds a BA from Michigan State University and an MBA from The University of Texas at Austin. He was also first team Academic All-Big Ten in basketball at Michigan State and still finds time to follow his beloved Spartans.


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