OPINION24 May 2010

Facebook at the crossroads over privacy concerns

Could the row over privacy on the world’s most popular social media site have a knock-on effect for the research industry?

If you log onto Facebook on 30 May there’s a good chance that you’ll see a status update ending “… is deleting their profile tomorrow”.

This is because thousands of Facebook users are planning on committing virtual hara-kiri on 31 May over concerns about the site’s privacy settings.They now make content such as status updates, photos and hobbies and interests visible to all users – unless the account holder specifically alters their account settings.

In times gone by, you would need to be friends with someone on the site to see their latest holiday snaps or try and decipher status updates written at 3am on the night bus home. Now, unless you read the small print and change your settings, this could all be picked up by your boss, wife or indeed anyone. A percentage of the site’s users are up in arms.

At the time of writing almost 15,000 people have committed to deleting their accounts at the end of May over the policy – the most recent version of which is longer than the US Constitution.

The number of removals may be a drop in the ocean when you consider that Facebook has more than 400 million users, but it shows that many people do actually care about their privacy – as the reaction to online behavioural advertising technology demonstrated last year.

So where does the research industry come into all this? A quick look through the news pages of this site will show you that social media monitoring has become big business and a vital piece of kit in a researcher’s toolbox.

Companies that offer analysis of what users write on Facebook and similar sites have been springing up regularly throughout the recession, and have won business from all corners of the marketing world. Tracking and analysing what people say on social media sites is becoming a big part of the research business, and how Facebook, the social media juggernaut, plays its next hand will make interesting viewing.

There is definitely an air of “anti-Facebook” sentiment pervading the internet, and one wonders whether this could be the first step in a general disenchantment with social media.

If people are going to refrain from posting on Facebook or delete their accounts altogether over privacy concerns, there could be a knock-on effect for the research and social media monitoring industries.

They may flock to a new site that promises them greater control over their information or hides all their data and updates behind an impenetrable privacy wall, and where would that leave the sub-industry of social media monitoring that has sprung up?

Perhaps honesty is the best policy for researchers if they want continued access to what people are saying in the virtual world. Harris Interactive is preparing to launch a ‘lifestreaming’ service, which asks panel members for their consent to track and analyse what they post on Facebook, Bebo, Twitter and other sites and forums.

If social media users are becoming paranoid about companies lurking around cyberspace trying to snatch a glimpse at their status updates and likes and dislikes, surely the best thing the research industry can do is set out its stall and be open with people about what it wants to do and why?

Meanwhile, Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg has promised new, simpler privacy settings. The situation is poised to tilt either way – and social media researchers need to be prepared to roll with the punches.

1 Comment

10 years ago

zzzz it'll never happen, well it will but @ 15000 out of 400000000 I'm sure Mark will be crying himself on his huge pillow.

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