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Should Social Media Marketers Worry About Privacy?

“Privacy is dead, and social media hold the smoking gun.”

– Pete Cashmore, CEO of Mashable


Can we thank social media for the end of privacy?

I recently mentioned the word privacy to a social media business colleague while researching the topic of this post.  My friend Rachel Strella, who caters to the small business market, responded with a shrug.  I wasn’t surprised.  As participation in social channels becomes the status quo for our connected, engaged generation, are standard notions of privacy still applicable, or even relevant?  Are we trending away from concerns about what is public and what is off limits?

To be sure, there continues to be ongoing discussions and debate focusing on a world gone transparent.  By now most people should expect that our musings, videos, music preferences, online exchanges, hobbies, passions, peeves, biases, values and occasional super-secret passwords (thank you, again, LinkedIn) are basically up for grabs.  It seems what we think (aka what we “Like”) is churned, sifted and parsed so that marketers and market makers can glean insights and intelligence to help make strategic business decisions, sidestepping the old-fashioned practices of making reasonable assumptions and generalizations.  And, OK yes, some just simply want to add (or sell) your contact information to yet another allegedly “targeted” direct email marketing database.

Several months ago I blogged that Big Data was going to have a major impact on social media marketing.  Neal Schaffer reinforced the Big Data trend in a recent post, suggesting all this data needs to be integrated into social CRM systems so that even more people can tap into this valuable business asset.  It goes without saying that a lot of that information contains BIG data about you, your life, your views (political and otherwise), your buying preferences and your whereabouts.  Some people willingly parade a public billboard of their lives for all to view; others might want to preserve facets of their views and activities from the data aggregators.

How can you possibly participate in largely public online channels such as Facebook, Google+, Twitter, LinkedIn, FourSquare, Tumblr, YouTube and other social portals without broadcasting a multi-dimensional profile of who you are, what you think and where you go?  George Orwell is snickering.  Some people might opt for a selective approach to privacy.  They might forgo the time-intensive personal exchanges on Facebook for the seeming professional decorum associated with Google+ shares.  Perhaps even safer are image-oriented sites such as Flickr, Pinterest and Tumblr, where interesting photos and innocuous visuals can project a disguised, muted or more complex personal tableau.   But apparently you don’t actually have to directly share personal updates and views; intelligent data systems are able to create personal profiles by weaving together information from myriad online sources.  That picture you posted is apparently worth a  thousand words (about you) to a crafty analytical aggregator.

I attended a high school reunion this past summer where I found plenty of classmates who had yet to tap into social media because of lack of interest, time or fears about privacy.  As it turned out, Facebook had become the common denominator leveraged by most alumni.  Post reunion, the ripple effect of old friends reaching out to connect has been facilitated largely with the assistance of the highly public social channel.  The desire to belong and to participate seems to have assuaged at least some of the fears about digital intrusion – for some, not all.

In January 2010, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg declared the concept of privacy was over, saying, “People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people.  That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.”  Actually, the modern debate about privacy surfaced earlier during the 1960s, when identities were turned into simple computer punch cards.  Protestors decried the now-amusing relic of the early Digital Age with the mantra “Do Not Fold, Bend, Spindle or Mutilate Me.”

By the time pixels replaced punch cards, the respected science fiction author David Brin wrote a 1996 non-fiction article for Wired magazine titled “The Transparent Society,” and later turned the piece into a book.  While companies were still asking if they needed to put up a website and being “social” meant public dial-up bulletin board systems, online discussion forums and nascent instant messenger applications such as ICQ, Brin predicted the ever-lowering cost of data collection and database technologies would gradually peel away the remaining layers of privacy.  The loss of privacy hence is directly proportional to pervasive surveillance technology that knows no limits to the kinds of information collected and stored virtually forever.  Privacy, in a wide open world, will be a managed, negotiated and even transacted component of every person’s life.

In a video interview with The Globe and Mail of Canada, Jeff Jarvis, journalism professor, author and blogger, reminded viewers that information has been collected on people long before the Internet.  He emphasized the benefits of free digital content and services come at a price, and the privacy issue may be overblown.  Jarvis fears too much intervention by government may stifle the important value of the Internet as a “change agent” and democratizing force in journalism

In a July 2012 cover story, Consumer Reports magazine showcased Internet privacy, expressing concerns that social channels such as Facebook and Google may not be as forthcoming information being collected despite public pronouncements about transparency and shared concerns about consumer privacy.  A report from the Consumer Reports National Research Center especially raised alarms privacy-related impacts including rising identity theft, unauthorized access to credit card accounts, rampant email and website phishing schemes.  Even though Facebook has deployed user-customizable privacy control settings, I was surprised that Consumer Reports noted that Facebook logs your visit to any website with a “Like” button even if you take no action at that site.  That’s a “Like” button running on steroids.  Also, you may have your Facebook account set with high privacy levels, but if a friend is using a Facebook app your stuff can be easily beamed to some other third-party business.  That’s what I call a loop with a mighty big hole.

While the major social channels will continue to be scrutinized by consumers, critics and government, there’s every good reason to review your own company’s privacy policies, or offer to audit the privacy practices of your clients:

  1. Even with our current social media environment that pushes the exhibitionism envelope, businesses and marketers have a responsibility to clearly disclose privacy policies.   Those policies should delineate not only terms of use but applications of your information, including if, when and how personal data might be sold, exchanged or shared with other businesses, data aggregators or any entity that can establish a marketing or sales touch point to any of your connected devices, social accounts or communications channels.
  2. If you are collecting location data, be up front about that too.  Do you really want your brand to be positioned (or outed) as a digital stalker?  The same for facial recognition software.  Did everyone in that image know their photo was taken, let alone posted on a site?  How is posting and tagging a photo containing an unwilling subject any different than using visuals from paid stock photo services without paying for the images?
  3. If we don’t keep our houses clean, somebody else will.  Do we really want to invite more government rules, regulations and oversight?  A “Privacy Bill of Rights” has been proposed in the U.S.; Europe has already taken the lead in enabling consumers a “right to access” online information.
  4. Consider adding a little marketing flare to those drab, microscopic privacy statements.  A plain English bullet point summary in a large, readable font demonstrates you have nothing to hide.  Dear lawyers, it really is possible to communicate policies in something other than single-spaced agate type.
  5. Be open, fair and transparent.  The growth and evolution of social networks such as Facebook, Google+ and YouTube depend on their ability to aggregate information about how you use features and functions.  Consumers should expect that social channels will likewise remember that trust is key to the mutually beneficial relationship.  Protection of consumer privacy can actually be a selling point for your company or client.

Do you think the Big Data revolution might turn into an Orwellian nightmare?  Or do you think privacy fears and concerns, as Jeff Jarvis suggests, are overblown?  Do we risk consumer backlash?  Should consumers have greater browser and website controls to enable “do not track” settings?

Joel Don (9 Posts)

This monthly Social Business Trends column is contributed by Joel Don. Joel is principal of Comm Strategies, a consultancy that leverages public relations strategies, reputation enhancement and social media tools to maximize business success. Joel has worked for several PR and marketing agencies, and previously served as a public information officer at UCLA and UC Irvine. He also directed business and financial communications at a Fortune 500 computer manufacturer. Formally trained as a journalist, he has written for daily newspapers and national magazines throughout the country. In addition, Joel developed a digital solution for measuring the readership of company news prior to the advent of today’s link-tracking systems.


TOPIC: Social Media Privacy

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