Do You Convert an Oops! Moment into an Opportunity to Build Trust?

What do you do when you make an embarrassing mistake on the social web? I have been seeing different behaviors and wanted to pen my thoughts on how your behavior affects the trust others place in you.

Yesterday, a well-known person in the tech world tweeted a screenshot about what she thought was a new feature in Gmail. After I pointed out that it probably wasn’t a new feature at all, she simply deleted her tweet.

At the same time, a tech blog picked up her tweet and wrote a blog post describing this ‘new’ Gmail feature. After I @replied the blogger, rather than updating the post, they deleted the post entirely. (They later reinstated the post after I publicly voiced my disappointment).

Many months earlier, the same person had retweeted a TechCrunch tweet that had a sensational headline, but a bad URL link. It was obvious that she had retweeted it without even clicking on the link. After realizing what had happened, she simply deleted her retweet.

Contrast this with the following examples.

Yesterday, a prominent Indian celebrity’s Twitter account was hacked, and it started tweeting malicious URLs. Others started retweeting these with comments about it being hacked.

As soon as a friend I follow discovered that these URLs were malicious, she deleted her old-style retweet. But after that, she tweeted publicly that she was doing so to avoid others clicking on that link.

Couple of days back, I wrote a post about Schmidt’s comments apparently disappearing from a WSJ article. It was soon brought to my attention that the comments were indeed there, and another news story was merged with the original one, which had caused the confusion.

Within seconds, I scrambled to update the post, tweet that it was a mistake on my part, and thank the person who pointed it out both in the post and on Twitter. The thought of deleting the post entirely never even crossed my mind.

There are several other instances I have seen on FriendFeed, where a few people made rude comments about someone. In some cases, they apologized in later comments, in others, they simply deleted the rude remarks. In the case of the former, the relationships healed, in the latter, they were permanently estranged.

There are numerous such examples all of us encounter in the social web. The different behaviors I’ve seen fall under three broad categories:

  1. Delete any instances revealing the mistake and say nothing about it publicly.
  2. Delete any instances revealing the mistake, and thank the person who pointed it out privately.
  3. Retain the evidence of your mistake, and publicly thank the person who pointed it out.

Most people I’ve observed practice either #1 or #2. They hope that in this world of inter-connected networks, their cross-posted tweets and comments that are auto-posted and shared across a multitude of other networks won’t be seen by the majority of their followers. These practices avoid the public embarrassment, while apparently retaining their trust and influence with those who didn’t discover the mistake.

On the other hand, virtually all the people whom I trust and respect the most in the online world, follow #3. Why?

Because not only do they retain their trust and influence, they actually enhance it by their public admission and expression of gratitude. They know and accept that to err is human. Their public admission shows all their followers that their word can be trusted. Their public expression of gratitude reveals that they listen to their followers and are ready to admit their mistakes.

They convert an embarrassing “Oops!” moment into an opportunity to build their trust. What do you think? Which of the three categories of behavior do you think is the best?

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  • In the last few months, I’ve had two public opportunities to test this one.

    1) Guessing that Brizzly was to be bought by Foursquare.

    This was based on public tweets of contracts, lawyers and M&A, triangulated with the Foursquare visit. Within hours, I was clearly wrong. To be fair, I left the old post up with a disclaimer and changed the headline, and wrote a post afterward saying how I was wrong.

    Months later, it’s now clear I was right to guess they were being bought, but I guess wrong on who.

    2) Speculation on Twitter promoting new features including “Shoutouts”

    Again – working with public content that was not entirely clear. I guessed based on what looked like a new feature, and found out I was covering an internal group list to Twitter. In this case, it didn’t make sense to go commit hari-kiri, but just add comments from @SG at Twitter, saying I was wrong. I can handle being wrong, and don’t mind speculation rather than regurgitation.

    As for making mistakes and deleting things, if you do it fast enough, I think it is fine, so long as you clean up the downstream damage.

  • Louis,

    You’ve explained better than I could, why I trust and respect you. 🙂

    It’s more interesting that I do not even remember these two instances you mention, though I was involved with both of them. These ‘mistakes’ are not remembered, unless there’s an attempt to cover up. The only thing implicitly remembered is that I can continue trusting this person.

  • Guru

    I guess if you are serious about using the various tools here to build your credibility, network, brand, business, etc. then its far better to go the 3rd route. Definitely pays in the long run.
    But if you are here just to be ‘Ms. Perfect’ (loud-mouth! :P) then you would choose one of the other options.

  • I too find it disappointing when someone deletes a tweet or blog post due to inaccuracy. The only time I’ll delete a tweet is if it was an intended DM.

    If someone takes time to correct me on a post I’m careful to use strikethrough text and highlight the updated portions.

    Everyone makes mistakes and it is certainly an opportunity to build credibility.

    Excellent thoughts and very well written.

  • Thanks a lot for the feedback, Keith.

    Appreciate you sharing your thoughts. I have seen you use strikethroughs and update your posts. As always, that has gone a long way in building the trust between us!

  • Thank you for validating my thoughts, Guru!

  • Excellent thoughts and the post is very well written. I really loved reading this post. I always prefer Category #3 to acknowledge my goof-ups online.

  • Thanks Mahendra, I look to you for best curation/sharing practices. Reputation and trust are vital in a world of fluid information flow.

  • I enjoy fixing typos and grammatical errors in blog posts to see them instantly corrected in buzz and other PuSH enabled downstream locations. But for guessing wrong, well that’s part of the fun. You can’t enjoy your remarkable tea leaf readings without swallowing all the missed calls. Hope all is well at My6Sense, I have a number of your posts sitting in my reader waiting to be read. Will remedy that this week.

  • Quite a sharp observation when it comes to social behaviour online. I think most people go for the option 1 or 2 , because web as a medium gives them the flexibility to do that. You cant take the words back, neither can you do that with an email or a msg or even a simple post it – note.
    But you can do that with your own tweet/blog post/FB comment – so you go ahead and do that presuming its ‘appropriate’.
    and while we do that we forget , instead of using the feature of ‘flexibility’ its the ideal opportunity for us to instead use the ‘multiplicity’ feature of these tech-enabled mediums of communication. By putting in a humble addendum – we not only add more depth and dimension to what we have to say – but also to our social behaviour – like you correctly pointed out.

  • Chandni, nicely put. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.