Social Media Research And Privacy
Social Media Research And Privacy: Where Do You Stand?
Social Media Research And Privacy: Where Do You Stand?

Last week I was part of a neat experiment with a group of about 30 or so forward-thinking market researchers to come up with the five “hot” and five “not-so-hot” trends that will affect our industry over the next few years. The goal was for all of us to publish our posts at roughly the same time (I say “roughly,” because I was late :) ) and see where we all agreed and disagreed. Here were mine, in case you are interested. Fellow market researcher Tom Anderson (who organized the event) produced these word clouds to represent the hot and not-hot posts; if you can tell the difference between them, you’re a frickin’ genius.

One of the common themes from all of these posts was the issue of privacy, especially as it relates to social media research. Some felt it was a dead issue: we have no illusions of privacy – Facebook gives us umpteen privacy settings and we just don’t care. Others feel it will be a hot issue – that there is still another shoe yet to drop, in other words. Certainly, as a researcher, I feel like I have a pretty good moral compass about this sort of thing, and my assumption is that my industry peers also have no desire to “cross the line.” That line, however, turns out to be a slippery sucker. Surely accessing a private message board community that discusses mental health issues should be sacrosanct, yet a company like Nielsen managed to cross exactly that line last fall.

Privacy preferred - - 200314

When we complain about a product or service on Twitter, implicitly we are hoping that our pleas will be monitored and responded to. Indeed, by bringing our complaints to the social web, we may be hoping for more – not only that our specific problem will be solved, but that others will benefit, too. Yes, there is probably an element of self-aggrandizement/Klout-fishing that keeps this from being a purely altruistic gesture, but in any case, we voice our displeasure in order to bring about some effect, for ourselves or others, and that model doesn’t work unless companies are listening, and you know that they are listening.

A few months ago I gave a talk at the annual CASRO convention to a group of survey researchers who are grappling with these same issues. In my talk, I used myself as something of a guinea pig, leading my audience down the rabbit hole from an innocent update I posted to Twitter all the way down to the street where I live, a picture of my house, and even how much money I make (roughly), all using publicly-available data and free web services. A username from one site unlocks a profile on another, and a chain of information is revealed about you that is far longer than you think.

From a marketer’s perspective, this information is gold, of course. When you complain about a product, a skilled social media researcher can segment and profile you: are you a parent of young children? An empty-nester? Unemployed? Plop – in you go into the appropriate bucket. Many of you, the readers of Social Media Explorer, are marketers. This information is beneficial to you – but is there a line you won’t cross? At what point do you say, you know – I don’t want to know this. Or do you? One thing is for sure – if you ask for it, social media researchers somewhere will provide it. What do you think? Is there a line? How do you recognize it? Your comments and spirited debate are welcome.

About the Author

Tom Webster
Tom Webster is Vice President of Strategy for Edison Research, sole provider of U.S. National Election exit polling data for all major news networks. Webster has 20 years of experience in market and opinion research, with a particular emphasis on consumer behavior and the adoption of new media and technology. He is the principal author of a number of widely-cited research studies, including Twitter Usage In America, The Social Habit, and The Podcast Consumer Revealed, and is co-author of the Edison Research/Arbitron Internet and Multimedia Research Series, now in its 18th iteration. Reach him on Twitter at Webby2001, or on his blog at BrandSavant.
  • Glad to see this information.its very useful for everyone.thanks for sharing this post.
    Stock tips

  • Please, please, please don't forget that NOT EVERYONE who posts comments about brands online actually wants the brand to interact/interfere/respond. Naming a brand does not a give a brand the automatic right to talk to you.

    Along the same lines, I posted some racist and sexist comments on twitter, assuming the stance of someone who posted in haste and then later regretted doing so. My comments are still online and even if you don't know my name, you can find the nasty remarks and quickly associate them with my name. So remember, even when you try to give privacy by not using a name, privacy is completely lost.

    And i dare you to find the remarks. :)

    • I don't think I'll take you up on your dare, Annie :)

  • michmski

    Really great post, Tom. This is definitely an issue that is important for marketers and social media monitoring companies because although “information is gold”, there are ethical boundaries that shouldn't be crossed. Many people want to monitor Facebook, for example, and while there are companies that will do that, Synthesio (I'm their CM ps ;) ) only monitors public spaces, including forums. Transparency is an issue that should be pushed, I think, because it's better for the entire market if people are aware what is public and therefore being monitored by multiple companies at any given time, and what is locked and therefore should be unavailable.

    It's interesting to note some people accepting and expecting this – tweeting, for example, that they want help or are unhappy or happy with something – while others do not want their blog to be monitored.

    I'd be interested in knowing, what are the grey areas for Edison Research? What is acceptable and unacceptable for you?

    Michelle @Synthesio

  • good question. in my opinion nowadays too much things became public instead of being private like they were before and like it actually should be. make everything you ahve public is a really bad idea.. however mostly people can understand only when mistake is done..

  • Karen

    I never realized so much information can be found on a person. Obviously anything on the web is public, but there needs to be a line. If you are posting something on the web, it doesn't necessarily mean that you want everything else that was ever linked to you made public. For example, health issues or things that are usually considered private.

  • I think you can actually find a lot more information on just about anybody than most people realize. The problem only seems to arise when people become aware of this in a blatant way.

    As an analogy, imagine walking in London, for example. There are cameras everywhere, you just don't pay attention to them. There are dozens of articles in newspapers about CCTV and being monitored everywhere – they know where you walk, what you buy, when you go out and where.

    If we turn this on its head, imagine someone 3 feet away from you following you around with a camera everywhere. It would be incredibly creepy. Yet the information they'd get is the same as in the case above.

    It's only when people's ILLUSION of privacy has been violated in an obvious way that they care.

    • Just so – and I think many people even KNOW that it is an illusion, but it is a convenient one. Where would we be without cookies?

  • lisagerber

    Hi Tom,
    I wish I had seen the path you led your audience to unlock one profile after another. From a consumer perspective, we all have a new responsibility: to monitor our own information online via google alerts and simply staying on top of privacy issues. (in other words- Spokeo – the hot button of the month)
    We also need to keep in mind that anything we post on our social networks or even via text is truly private. One screengrab and you can easily be in the headlines.

    So you're right. Privacy or the definition of it, is changing.

    • I think I burned that presentation right after I gave it – it even scared me :)


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