Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Is There Potential Turbulence As The Friendly Skies Go Social?

Our blog has moved. You will find this blog post and fresh content on our new Talascend IT blog.
This past week I attended the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) conference in Las Vegas. Being that I live on the east coast, I had to take a plane to get there. I could have done a road trip, the train or even run ala Forrest Gump, but frankly, I didn’t have a couple of weeks to spare nor do I desire running as more than an occasional part of my regimen. Basically, I have no other choice than to put myself through the sometimes tenuous ritual of flight.

The conference yielded a wealth of information and was worth facing the perils of airline travel. In this case the reward outweighed the risk involved. The risk of getting seated next to someone I consider an undesirable row-mate or that the in flight movie includes some work by Pauly Shore or Carrot Top (or that my row-mate is Carrot Top).

Coincidentally, I ran across an article by All Things D author Laura Goode during my flight home. In the story, she references a recent New York Times article about airlines using customer social media information to pair up passengers on flights.

The concept is not entirely new as a few airlines and companies have tried to match people up based on their level of annoyance…rather, their preferred level of talkativeness while in the air. Quiet goes with quiet and chatterboxes pass the time with kindred souls. However, the idea that seat assignments based on social profiles loaded with information about careers, looks, hobbies and more  is an entirely different animal.

The concept of selecting your captive audience for the next 3 to 20 hours (we have an office in Australia) brings up a slew of privacy issues, concerns and interesting questions. While novel and an incredibly cunning way to apply social media marketing to the product airlines sell, to me, it just seems a bit over the top. Here’s why:

Potential Discrimination Issues
We’ve all heard the stories about people who have been asked to buy two seats because of their size or the overly smelly traveler that has been asked to leave the plane. We’ve also heard the backlash from such events. One of Goode’s readers commented that using social media could lead back to the days where travelers are segregated to sections of the fuselage based on ethnicity. While maybe a bit of a kneejerk response and possibly a bit shortsighted, the comment does raise the question of whether seating assignments based on personal information could lead to discrimination, either intentional or unintentional.

Here’s one to ponder; will companies who pay for tickets have to abide by EEOC requirements to make sure their employees don’t violate any rules during flight?

Cyber Stalking
Inevitably, there will be man or woman on the flight that is looking to interact with the best looking passenger. They open up their social media site of choice, browse the goods and shortly thereafter it’s, “Bam! I’ll take the person sitting in 14 C with the dimples for $500 Alex.”

Is it me or does this raise any concerns? Is the potential for unwanted attention or ulterior motives there? In all fairness the article does say that passengers have the right to deny a seating request made by another passenger up to two days before the flight. That’s not the point. You will be compartmentalized with the very person you denied, they know where you’re sitting and might be a little upset with you for no reason other than you didn’t want to spend time with them.

That brings up another issue. Social media is, in fact, social (sometimes pseudo social). Users sometimes feel an immediate connection with others they might not have ever run across in passing. To some, social media is their primary means of connection with outside world. People say and do things they would never say or do in person via the web. Point being, I don’t want someone’s perception of me, based on their life experiences, to be their expectation during a flight.

You could make the argument that your very participation in social media denies you all rights to certain levels of privacy, however, you control who is in your network, you control whether or not to share certain information with your “friends,” you have control.

In the airline model, sharing your information is optional. As an IT and staffing professional, I can see the upside for potential networking opportunities that could be beneficial to the entire row. Am I willing to take the risk that instead, I get seated between people who made their choice based on a musical artist I like and want to talk about Lady gaga (guilty pleasure) for hours when I have work to do?

There are just too many questions that come up for this to be a good idea. It seems like the risks outweigh the potential rewards. Maybe some things are just best left to chance; including your seating partner when flying alone.