Social Media Privacy is an Oxymoron

In Facebook, Twitter on May 12, 2010 at 10:08 pm

This article is cross-posted at TheeMailGuide.com.

In the last few weeks there has been intense scrutiny and backlash in the media and blogs regarding Facebook’s new Open Graph and privacy.  I’ve read hundreds of articles about Facebook’s API, the inadvertent exposing of private chats, and the increasing lack of privacy in social media.

While Facebook’s Open Graph may provide tremendous opportunities within e-commerce, a primary concern with Facebook has been its consistent lack of proper notification and explanation of privacy policy changes in a language easily understood by all of its users.  This new policy allows previously private information to be shared publicly with certain websites.  The onus is on the user to decipher Facebook’s complicated policy and opt out, regardless of previous privacy settings.  For the 400 million global Facebook users, of which approximately 13% are under the age of 18, this is a very valid concern.

There are many issues to be addressed with social network privacy policies; however, those engaged in social media need to understand, that by its very nature, social media and privacy are inherently incongruous.  Social media is a new medium.  New social networks will continue to form and established ones will continue to evolve.  Policies will change.  Social networks will come under increased regulatory scrutiny and guidelines will develop.  However, this is the world-wide-web, accessible to anyone with a computer at his fingertips.  Glitches, hacks and viruses will always pose a risk to those wishing to keep information private, despite declared network policies.  Lesson #1 in using social media: Social media privacy is an oxymoron.  For anyone, business or individual, remembering that fundamental principle is crucial to protecting your brand.  With that in mind, here are some ways to mitigate potential damage:

1.   Don’t say or write anything you wouldn’t want the world to see. Seems simple enough, but I’m constantly surprised by the number of people who consider a direct message on Twitter or inbox message on Facebook “private”.   I recently saw a heated DM exchange between two companies on Twitter.  One company posted screenshots of the DMs in its public stream, creating an awkward situation for both businesses.  So-called “private” messages can be printed and circulated as well.  If you wouldn’t say it publicly, skip the “private” message.

2.   Stay aware of privacy policy changes within your social networks. As we have seen with Facebook, most users simply ignore the notice, without understanding the true implications of the changes.  Do your research. Fully comprehend policy changes and how they will affect your company’s brand, your personal accounts, and the accounts of your employees.

3.   Establish a company policy and personal social media strategy. A company policy not only protects your business, but your employees as well.  Teach your employees about the potential ramifications of social networking.  Personal accounts can have major implications for your company’s brand.  What if your biggest client is XYZ and your CEO just “liked” a competitor’s Facebook fanpage on his personal account?  Unless your CEO opted out of Open Graph personalization, this may become embarrassingly public information.  Advise employees to develop their own private “personal social media strategy/policy”.  Get them to start thinking about their “personal brand” and how they use social media.  College admissions, hiring managers and recruiters are increasingly using social media to get a better picture of applicants.  While you can’t control everything, educate and encourage employees to personally define how they want to be perceived and act accordingly.

4.   Place great consideration into who is representing your brand. There are a lot of self-proclaimed social media gurus; some with impressive credentials, others with limited experience.   When hiring a community manager or social media director, evaluate not only the candidates’ knowledge of social media and experience, but personal maturity, insight, and professionalism.  Will they consistently employ good judgment and discretion in a medium which requires both professionalism and some personal engagement?  Will they take the time to read every link they retweet?  One line or one word in an article can damage your brand and create negative public relations consequences.  Assessing these qualitative credentials may require more reference checks than you would normally conduct, but you are ultimately responsible for what is tweeted and retweeted on your account.  It takes four minutes for a tweet to become permanently searchable on Google, even if deleted later.  Make sure the person behind your brand is representing you with integrity and in line with your company’s objectives.

5.  Never provide personal information that can compromise safety. According to a recent article on Media Post, Consumer Reports states that 56% of Facebook users post what would be considered “risky” information.  Never include your full birthdate with year in profile information (Currently 42% of Facebook users post this full information).  Be cautious when posting your home address or using Geo-location features.   Identity theft, stalkers, and burglaries are each very real and dangerous consequences of lax sharing of information.

6.  Post photos at your own risk. There are many wonderful social sites available to share photos.  However, always be aware that any photo uploaded to a website has the potential to show up on someone’s blog or website.  Pictures can be photoshopped.  If you share photos, be prepared there is always a risk involved and photos may not remain private.

While privacy policies are a vital component of social networks, and users should always evaluate how changes impact their personal information, no one should take for granted that this is an evolving medium on the information super highway.  Whether it’s a business or personal account, what is shared is ultimately controlled by you.  In the words of my editor, Jim Ducharme, “I alone am responsible for my online privacy.”

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