Live From Room 12 in the ER — Social Networking Gone Wrong

This story starts out innocently (albeit scary enough). This past Sunday, while running lake-side on a hot Chicago afternoon, I noticed something was not quite right. I returned home and immediately went to the emergency room. Fortunately, the trip ended up being for a temporary malady that became a non-issue after a few hours of tests and diagnoses to rule out various things. But the story about how information traveled from Room 12 in the emergency room at Northwestern Memorial Hospital to my somewhat un-socially networked father is a lesson we should all take to heart.

Here's how the story begins: an hour after checking into the ER, my younger sister decided to show up and wait with me. Even though she's not a blogger, she is definitely a bit more in the know about Facebook and MySpace than I (while I maintain a page on the former, it's not something I update regularly). When I was finally checked into a room, she decided to update her Twitter status on Facebook to let people know that she was waiting in the emergency room with her brother.

Within about 30 minutes of doing this, my father, in Philadelphia, somehow connected with his step-daughter (no relation) who is about as socially networked as they come. This step-daughter is friends with my sister on Facebook and she had read the Twitter update about my status. My dad flipped-out based on his discussion with his step-daughter, as the information contained in a single sentence sounded much more serious than the actual situation.

After reading what my sister had written, I would have been equally alarmed if I were in his shoes. I learned all about this from an SMS text to my wife who called in a panic having spoken to my father, thinking that something more serious was up (based on the whisper down the lane effect). She was also livid that my sister would post this online, especially without calling other family members first.

My sister played the aloof geek in all of this. Her immediate response was: "how could dad ever find this out -- I'm not friends with him on Facebook". I then asked her who she was friends with who could have read it. Then we figured it out – my father had tapped into her network (or rather, someone in my sister's network had reached out to him). So much for keeping a little information just amongst your friends on Facebook!

So what's the lesson in this? Be careful what type of information you share in a social network -- especially if it is a tweet or another type of real-time dispatch. An incomplete picture -- whether it's a supplier site visit in China or a trip to the ER in Chicago -- can seriously lead people astray. Best to distill the information and connect via phone, email, or a blog or Wiki (public or private) when you have time to explain the event to your immediate peer group.

As for me, I'm fine. So don’t worry. But in all of this, besides paying a surprisingly large ER deductible, I learned how important it is to manage your external flow of information -- and which communication media are best in different situations. Hopefully there's a lesson in it for Spend Matters readers as well.

- Jason Busch

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