Privacy vs. Social Media

(originally posted on Wednesday, May 19, 2010)

Social Media, Facebook in particular, is one big global cocktail party, minus the cocktails. It’s where we show up to be seen and heard, and a place to cultivate our own individual presence. It is the great equalizer of society in that everyone can broadcast or publish themselves, stand on their own soapbox, and communicate with their friends/followers/fans, or whatever version of “network” your favorite platform chooses to call it.

But it has also become the latest battlefield over the issue of privacy. When Zuckerberg uttered the above quote, he no doubt fanned the flames of the privacy debate. There is a misconception by Facebook’s users that they are entitled to completely protect their privacy when using Facebook. That notion is somewhat at odds with the whole concept of social media.

Facebook’s only true asset is data from the 450,000,000 users who have made this company the most dominant force in communications today. But the value of that data is only worth what these users make of it. There is no requirement by Facebook that you completely fill up your profile with personal information, but people do it anyway. And that’s because sharing personal information is at the heart of why social media is so popular. It’s the “look at me” factor that human beings naturally thrive on.

So why then are Facebook’s users so up in arms over privacy? Our theory is that it comes down to control. Facebook users seem to forget that they are USING someone else’s product for their own benefit (entertainment, networking, commerce, etc.) FOR FREE. Access to your personal information by Facebook, and its ancillary platforms, apps, polls, and games, is the currency used to pay the price of entry. But most people forget that they can indeed set their own “price” by limiting the amount of information they put into their profile.

Will that make the Facebook experience less enjoyable? That’s doubtful, because the sweet-spot on Facebook is the interaction between people in your network. It’s not people seeing your favorite Tolstoy quote, or learning that you’re interested in rock climbing, or that your favorite TV show is “Lost”. Those are the details that people can connect over, and those are the nuggets of data that marketers are looking for, but that’s not what makes Facebook so appealing to people. It’s the simple ability to communicate with anyone at anytime about anything that makes social media a phenomenon.

We the people do NOT own Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg does. And he has the right to make the rules. If we don’t like the rules we can go somewhere else like Twitter, or Foursquare, or we can invent our own platform. We can even stop using social media altogether, but that is unlikely because it is now fully integrated into our way of life.

Or we can protect our own privacy the old fashioned way: by limiting the amount of information we put into our profiles, the kinds of apps we use, and the groups we join. That’s where the user still has total control.

As marketers, The Weinstein Organization has a vested interest in the privacy debate as it pertains to social media. Without personal data, Facebook becomes less important and less useful to the marketing world. If consumers want to protect their privacy, that decision still belongs to them. However, “being private” is really the antithesis of “being social”. So is Zuckerberg correct about privacy no longer being a social norm? Or has he misjudged the true nature of social media’s appeal? Does social media belong to the people, or the platforms?