Facebook’s latest privacy controversy

19 Oct 2010 by Randall Helms, 1 Comment »

One of the issues that came up in my dissertation was that, for marketers, Facebook’s usefulness is limited by the fact that it can be difficult to link social media interactions to actual consumption behaviour, because so many people hide their personal details through Facebook’s privacy controls.

For example, if a group of people ‘like’ a brand, then what does that mean?

Who are they?

Are they brand champions, are they looking for special deals, or are they just liking the brand for the hell of it?

If you cannot access demographic information or any personal information, then it is hard to draw any conclusions as to whether or not you are successfully reaching your target group. I hypothesized that at some point in the future more of this kind of linking data would become available in order to improve the targeting of social media marketing.

However, little did I know how quickly this would happen!

Today’s Wall Street Journal had an interesting article about the latest privacy controversy to hit Facebook:

Many of the most popular applications, or “apps,” on the social-networking site Facebook Inc. have been transmitting identifying information—in effect, providing access to people’s names and, in some cases, their friends’ names—to dozens of advertising and Internet tracking companies, a Wall Street Journal investigation has found.

The issue affects tens of millions of Facebook app users, including people who set their profiles to Facebook’s strictest privacy settings. The practice breaks Facebook’s rules, and renews questions about its ability to keep identifiable information about its users’ activities secure.

Thinking about this, it’s not particularly surprising to me that companies are figuring out ways around the privacy walls – it is just too tempting to go after all of that information! For Facebook itself, it’s a fine line to traverse, since their product (as Andrew Brown argued) is not the social networking experience, but the actual users and all of the demographic, social, and cultural information that they willingly provide. The advertisers pay the bills, and what the advertisers want is access to all of that juicy personal information. This is why I think that Facebook is likely to side with the advertisers (and I’m sure they’ve been winking at marketers accessing more personal info than they should have), despite the privacy concerns of the average person. And I really do understand these privacy concerns, because although from a professional standpoint I understand that it is useful to have lots of personal data, there is much about me personally that I would rather be known only to my close friends and family, which is why I try to limit what I put on Facebook and Twitter to those things that I don’t mind other people knowing.

The big question is whether or not large numbers of people are going to leave Facebook if they feel that it doesn’t really respect their privacy, and whether they believe that it is effectively allowing marketers access to their personal details. My gut feeling is that they won’t, because people will tolerate a certain level of intrusion for being able to access Facebook and other social networking services for free, but I could be wrong. What is probably happening, though, is that people are becoming savvier at managing their online presence in order to keep private what they want to keep private, so it may be the case that this will be a pyrrhic victory for the data scrapers, because they will only be able to access selectively-edited profiles that do not provide a full picture of the person, not the full warts-and-all portrait they would hope to be able to provide to their customers.

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