Bright Matrices

Writings & musings of Mike Zavarello (a.k.a. brightmatrix), a "red mage" web developer.

Category: Facebook (page 1 of 2)

The Perpetuating Lie of “Friends” in Social Media

This week I was pointed to a succinct and astute essay by social media pioneer Chris Brogan entitled, “We Don’t HAVE to Be Friends.” For those of you who have strong interests in social media relationships and their potential, it’s well worth the read.

The crux of Chris’ essay is that social media networks have twisted the meaning of a “friend” such that folks have taken their “loose bond” online relationships on Facebook, Twitter, etc. a bit too personally. This specific paragraph resonated most with me:

People get emotional about the whole following thing. I get it, technically. I know that one of our HUGE triggers as a human is: “What? You don’t think I’m worthy?” But that’s not what this software-based transaction is about, and it’s not our emotion to deal with. The people who tend to feel that the most (I’m not worthy) are still working on their own issues, and it’s not ours to fix.

I’ve been on both sides of this equation. While I’ve argued several times over the years that social media networks are ours to manage and curate as we see fit, I’ve also felt the nagging sensations of guilt and, for lack of a better term, ennui about my interactions (or lack thereof) in social networking. My very first post on this blog was about Facebook’s not-so-obvious attempts at using psychology to draw you into their world using personally-charged terminology. To their credit, and as Chris points out, Facebook has given its users a “humane” option by allowing them to remain “friends” while “unfollowing” their updates. It’s a practical, if a bit passive-aggressive, way of better curating your intake without rocking the boat.

“Humane curation” methods like Facebook’s, as well as switching words around from “friends” to “followers,” as Foursquare did last August, while helpful, still maintain the perpetuating lie about online relationships. There’s far too much static, curated lives, and “shouting past one another” in social networking without having to agonize over the care-and-feeding of “loose bond” friendships for the sake of themselves.

The advice Chris gives is simple and powerful: “It’s your platform.”

Make it yours once again.

Author’s note: I credit inspiration for this essay to Karima-Catherine Goundiam, who brought Chris’ essay to my attention.

Followers With Benefits?

The folks over at ReadWriteWeb posted an essay today that outlined the changes Foursquare, a location-based social network, was making to its model. Rather than asking members to become friends with others in order to fully experience all that Foursquare has to offer, they’ve moved the personal interaction piece into a separate app (Swarm) and moved to the “follow model” pioneered by Twitter. As the essay points out, Facebook did much the same not so long ago by allowing you to “subscribe” to accounts instead of asking to be their friends.

What’s fascinating to me about this trend is that we’re seeing digital evolution at its finest.

Twitter’s superiority and pervasiveness as a social network has always been its simplicity. In its early days, this was a source of great confusion among new users. They were dumped into the network without understanding how it worked or what they were supposed to do. Now, however, I see Twitter being used increasingly as a personal news and entertainment network: you “tune into” whatever suits your fancy and, quite literally, follow along. It’s the ease of following, without the baggage of asking to be someone’s friend, that makes this so effortless and so successful.

Asking to be someone’s “friend” is awkward and often charged with emotion and implied meaning, whether it’s old high school friends on Facebook or the unsolicited network invitations on LinkedIn. You’re asking to be granted permission into the walled gardens of someone’s domain, and everyone reacts to that in different ways. The “follow model” is cleaner and less cumbersome. You make yourself available to the world, as with Twitter, and let folks “tune in” and “tune out” as they see fit. There’s no agony over accepting or declining these personal invites. Plus, it makes whatever social network follows this model, such as Foursquare, feel less invasive and more welcoming.

All of this sounds like a “win-win,” right? You get to be “followers with benefits,” in a way; more of the good “newsy” stuff and less of the emotional baggage, right?

True, but the damage I see here is the signal vs. noise ratio. Twitter, for example, has already evolved over the past few years into a network where folks are “talking past each other,” posting whatever catches their eye, but not really engaging with one another unless the topic is narrow or the community a tightly-knit one. Folks want to be known. They want to be the next network superstar. They want to promote themselves and their ideas, be they whimsical, clever, thoughtful, or profane. Some days, it’s quite a lot of “sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

I’m curious to see how further adoption of the “follow model,” should that trend continue, contributes to the evolution of conversations and interactions on Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, and other networks. This is still a very fluid medium, and it may surprise us to discover how we’ve adapted in the next social epoch.

My “A-ha” Moment About the “Spiral of Envy”

Today’s entry from Mark Schaefer’s {grow} blog, “Facebook, the ‘spiral of envy,’ and our Botox life,” put into succinct words precisely what has nagged and pulled at me about social media for the past two years. The crux of Mark’s essay was that we put so much gleam and shine on our online lives that it drives others into this descent into digital madness, where we constantly feel the need to one-up our friends, or we succumb to the illusion that our world is a grayer, less exciting version of what we see on Facebook, et al. One of the commenters labeled this the “Jones effect” (as in “keeping up with the Joneses”), and that’s the perfect way to describe it. It’s an dramatic arms race: our friends showcase their (so-called) awesome lives, and we feel we need to make ours more awesome as a result. No wonder folks get all bent out of joint in these realms.

This phenomenon affected me in the latter way: feeling what I was doing here was less important and less worthy than what others were saying out there. I’ve written a few times about the so-called “silent partners” in our online relationships: those folks who follow you on Twitter or friend you on Facebook, and yet never seem to either read, acknowledge, or respond to you from that point forward. I couldn’t figure it out, despite my best efforts, and I dropped my usage to the ultimate bare minimum for several months last year as a result. Now I have something I can use to identify this sensation, and it makes that much more sense.

People put so much guilt around our online relationships. You do it, and others around you do it. Don’t dare unfollow someone on Twitter or unfriend someone on Facebook lest they find out! Better to use some curated list or hide posts instead. It’s all so much unnecessary subterfuge. We need to be honest and just realize that we’re all people. We post because we want a reaction. Sometimes they’re trivial things, but we want a reaction all the same. So, it seems natural that people will decide to share things that are the pinnacle of wit, wisdom, weariness, or woe. Mark’s right: we don’t hear about the paint drying or toddler accidents; that’s the unattractive back alley side of life. But, we also need to realize that not everyone wants to hear those shards of our shiny lives, so it shouldn’t faze us if some folks tune out.

Your life is awesome. Perhaps not today, but your life is awesome. Don’t let those shiny “Botox lives” tell you otherwise.

 

The Social Media Neophyte Who Flew Too Close to the Sun

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Image credit: Unknown; source: http://englishihonorsmythology.wikispaces.com/Icarus

I love social media. Ever since my first tweet in June 2009, I’ve learned an immense amount about the mechanics, arcana, and vagaries of these networks and their inhabitants. I’ve become an “expert neophyte” of sorts, and my experiences have become beneficial for both my career and my colleagues. Along with my first love, Twitter, I hold digital citizenships in Facebook, Flickr, LinkedIn, Foursquare, Tumblr, WordPress, and Google+. My time spent in social media been equal parts amazing and enriching, but I’ve also found how overwhelming it can be if you’re not careful.

Around July of last year, shortly after I joined the hordes charging into the virgin wilderness of Google+, I had enough. I’d spent too many hours stressing over whether I was as knowledgable, “authentic,” and influential as I should be. I flipped back and forth between networks constantly, checking what I missed since my last visit and who had interacted with me in the interim. I was also in the midst of a years-long, strenuous redesign project where I was a key technical lead, and I simply had fewer and fewer cycles to spare for my alter egos. One day, I simply dropped off the grid. I posted nothing to Twitter for weeks, kept a lazy, glazed eye on Facebook, and put all my other presences, including this blog, in stasis.

I had burned myself out. I had flown too close to the sun.

It took me eight months to understand that my personal limit for fully-engaged social networks is two. I can maintain a presence in a few ancillary networks as well, but if I spend more than a cursory amount of time there, I feel the psychic strain from spreading myself too thin. I realized how easy it can be to get mired in keeping up with the digital Joneses: crafting the next clever blog post or witty comment, absorbing all the latest articles on Pinterest, getting the next Foursquare badge, or sustaining a Klout score. One simply can’t read, write, like, comment on, or share everything. It seems stupefyingly obvious, but I found that you really do start seeing trees instead of a forest if you’re not careful.

So, I’ve narrowed my focus back down to the essentials: Twitter for news, trends, professional connections, and real-time conversations, and Facebook to share life’s little snippets with family and friends. LinkedIn is delegated to my digital Rolodex; Foursquare an idle curiosity best suited for waiting at airport terminals; Tumblr a rare time waster; Google+ purely for research on how it works. Don’t even get me started about my feelings on Pinterest, Instagram, or the other new kids on the social media block.

I’ve invested a lot of time in Twitter and Facebook. To me, they’re now among the “established” social networks. As much as the landscape has changed over the past several years (AOL to LiveJournal to Friendster to MySpace and so on), I can’t shake the sensation that they’re here for the long run. As such, it will take a great deal of convincing for me to pull up stakes and move to another digital country. Because that is the choice I’m making from here on out: rather than collect more and more social profiles, I’ll replace them, swap them out. But it has to be worth it.

No more double-ended candles for me. I love social media too much to burn out again.

Behind the Juggernauts’ Curtain: Highlights from BlogWell’s Social Media Case Studies Event

On November 9, 2010, I attended BlogWell: How Big Brands Use Social Media at SAP Headquarters in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania. Hosted by the Social Media Business Council and GasPedal, BlogWell brought together case studies from eight major firms such as Hershey, Scholastic, Pfizer, and Discovery Communications in a fast-paced, half-day event.

Major themes discussed at BlogWell were the structure of social media initiatives within large, often heavily regulated industries, ways these firms are using innovative social campaigns to engage with their audiences, and the legal and ethical challenges they’re facing. Overall, it was refreshing to get a peek behind the curtains to see these corporate juggernauts taking well thought out, pragmatic, and innovative paths to successful social solutions. I’ve compiled notes from several of the sessions I attended.

Pfizer’s Social Media Playbook

Kate Bird, Digital Communications Professional for Pfizer, presented her company’s social media playbook, which she billed as “practical guidance for colleagues”.

The playbook boils down aspects of Pfizer’s official social media policy into a 20-30 page “umbrella” document that covers each of the major channels and provides guidance on how employees should engage in these channels, both professionally and personally.

It contains a resource repository that links to existing policies and training materials, official Pfizer social media channels, best practice documents, and illustrates how employees can get started. The playbook is evolving into an interactive digital tool encompassing wikis, videos, and collaborative spaces.

Kate also shared how Pfizer offers corporate-wide webinars and training on social media to all interested employees across different parts of the organization. All training is managed and conducted by employees.

Within the broader scope of social media, Pfizer expects to create a rich catalog of social properties, communities, and initiatives, with the goal of connecting the people who need to be connected to each other. They also hope to reduce agency costs by eliminating duplicate and redundant social media outlets with the organization. In addition, they want to offer their employees a deeper understanding of core social media principles. Finally, Pfizer seeks to have a more relevant and connected social footprint.

Keeping Bloggers Honest with Disclosures

Andy Sernovitz led the middle-of-the-afternoon main session on ethics and disclosure. His points were succinct and direct: it’s OK to have a commercially-minded social media program, so long as it’s clear. Disclosure increases the authenticity of your message, making you more credible and powerful.

The Federal Trade Commission requires disclosure and truthfulness in all social media outreach. It’s your responsibility to monitor the conversation around your brand or business and correct misstatements. Andy stated that it’s essential to have social media policies and training programs. He also cautioned that while bloggers are not your employees, you need to make a good faith effort to make certain they disclose. If the blogger or agency you hire is found to be unethical, the FTC will find you responsible.

Andy’s advice for handling bloggers is simple: never pay bloggers and insist on real disclosure. Paying bloggers changes the game from word-of-mouth to advertising, and readers will learn to distrust you. As for disclosure, make sure the bloggers are up front and clear with their statements, not burying them on their “About Me” page.

The “10 magic words” in disclosure are: “I work for X, and this is my personal opinion.” Disclosure statements need to clearly show who the blogger is, whether they were paid, and whether they’re offering an honest opinion based on a real experience. It’s then up to the reader to decide what the disclosure means to them.

The Social Media Business Council has a Disclosure Best Practices Toolkit that’s available for anyone download and use as a basis for their own social media efforts.

Coordinated Social Communications at Johnson & Johnson

Marc Monseau, of Corporate Communications at Johnson & Johnson, talked about how his corporation is taking advantage of the opportunities in social media, creating relationships, and learning more about their audience and how to best support them.

Starting first with a blog describing the history the company, Johnson & Johnson’s social media footprint has expanded over the past four years to include a corporate blog, YouTube channel, Facebook page, and four Twitter accounts. Each channel allows them to connect with key online stakeholders talking about health care and offer their own thoughts on health care topics.

Both their corporate blog and YouTube channel have healthy discussions. Marc described how they’ve become pathways into Johnson & Johnson for users to provide feedback on the topics presented and as a way to generate community discussions.

Marc explained how each of their channels operates in concert with each other. His staff has regular editorial meetings to discuss how to best engage their audiences. They then select the appropriate channel based on the nature of the message and where their audience is located, and decide which bloggers and influencers to interact with. By being open, responsive, and timely, Johnson & Johnson has been able to turn the tide in online conversations.

Johnson & Johnson has separate social media policies for their employees, based on whether the activities are external or integral to the organization. These policies give departments pathways to create their own initiatives.

Marc advised that, before you begin any foray into social media, you need to understand where conversations about you are taking place, who is saying them, and why. You must understand the dynamics of these discussions and your role in them. He recommended a consistent approach and behavior across all touch points, both in official publications and third-party websites; this is especially critical for heavily regulated industries.

Experimenting with Social Solutions for Internal Collaboration

The last session at BlogWell was led by Jonathon Haley, Director at BlackRock, an asset management firm. Jonathon elaborated on the social solutions for internal collaboration currently under way at BlackRock. His group is experimenting with ways social media can offer solutions with true business value. While the process isn’t expected to be finalized until early 2011, Jonathon shared what they’ve done to date and what they’ve learned along the way.

The key problem being addressed, he explained, is inefficient communication to and collaboration among the sales teams. Everyone is trying to feed valuable information to the sales team. How do you manage the mass of incoming information?

They first started with adding content authoring, on both personal and professional levels, to the teams’ annual objectives, then turned to internal blogs. Jonathon’s group gathered data to learn how social the teams were and conducted more intensive tests on specific channels with volunteers. This process allowed the group to find the social advocates within their organization and use them to lead the way.

Jonathon and his group then created “villains” to rally the teams around. First, they flagged PDFs in internal communications as the villain to encourage to teams to share information in more accessible, shareable, and searchable platforms. Then, they identified fringe players attempting to disrupt asset management models, as well as competitors with thought leaders on their sides, as the external villains.

Ultimately, the social solution at BlackRock must provide real business value: revenue creation and cost savings to the firm. The group has defined several metrics, such as number of phone calls per day to content experts, as benchmarks for the solution.

Jonathon advised gathering dedicated resources to work on social efforts like his, and to keep those teams tight. He emphasized that his group is comfortable with “small wins” in social as they consider how they’ll expand their solution across the company.

Key Elements for Measuring Your Social Media Campaigns

Now that social media channels like Twitter and Facebook have matured into solid communications platforms, many individuals, organizations, corporations, and agencies have taken to these channels to reach their audiences. What hasn’t quite solidified, however, is how these campaigns are tracked and measured. There’s still a decent amount of confusion and differing opinions of what you should measure and how.

In this post, I’ll share several factors, methods, and steps that I’ve learned this year about how you can effectively and realistically measure your social media campaigns. This isn’t intended to be a complete or exhaustive list of what you could use, but it’s my hope that each topic will assist you in your endeavors.

Define Your Goals and What Constitutes Success

Before you pursue any coordinated effort in your social media channels, think very carefully about your goals and what constitutes success for you. Remember, you cannot measure success (or anything at all, for that matter) if you don’t have defined goals up front or have an unclear vision of what defines a successful venture.

  • Expectations: Set the expectations of the campaign early and often. Make sure the goals and definitions of success can be precisely tracked, measured, and reported on. Build a communications strategy and make sure everyone who will be involved in the campaign has read and understood it completely. If you’re simply testing the waters of a specific social media channel or experimenting with a new approach, that’s perfectly fine, but make certain everyone understands that, especially those in charge.
  • Timeframe: Think about the timeframe of your efforts. What is the life expectancy of the campaign? Is it a short-term promotion, a webinar, conference, or event with specific dates, a brand awareness effort, or a marketing campaign to raise awareness of a cause or resource? Will you announce the effort ahead of time so users are prepared to take action, such as a “save the date” for events? How will you build interest and sustain momentum over the course of the campaign? What are your plans for retiring the campaign once it’s complete? Have you considered follow-up activities like a user satisfaction survey?
  • Transactions: Work out which transactions will define a successful campaign and stick with those decisions throughout the effort. How is the campaign intended to affect your transactions? Are you seeking to drive more traffic to a specific website, blog, or web-based application? Do you want a certain number of users to sign up for a promotion, event, or product trial? Do you want them to buy something? Think about “goal conversions”: the action(s) you want your users to make, and the end result(s) you want from them.
  • Return on Investment (ROI): ROI is a classic business metric, but it’s one that’s generated a lot of heated discussions when it relates to social media. Whenever you think of ROI, it should always boil down to money: hard dollars and cents (or euros, sterling, yen, etc.). Did your campaign generate enough revenue to justify its cost (marketing materials, agency fees, manufacturing costs, etc.)? Did you increase sales of a product or service? Did your transactions balance out the (estimated) hourly rate of the staff spent managing, tracking, and measuring the campaign? You don’t have to always sell something to determine ROI; in essence, you’re figuring out whether the campaign was worth the effort, but that worth has to be a financial measurement.

Look for Active Responses

Among the most valuable success metrics are direct responses from your audience. These can include mentions and direct messages on Twitter and wall posts and comments on Facebook. Be sure to check these regularly, especially if you intend to respond to comments or engage with your audience to keep up the momentum of your campaign.

If one of your transactions is new fans or followers, you may want to activate e-mail notifications to have “hard copies” of these actions. New follower notifications from Twitter, for example, not only show you basic information about the new follower, but also which platform or browser they used, the date and time of their activity, and the size of their audience.

Check How and How Often Users Are Sharing

To track how far your message has reached, look for evidence of sharing within your audience.

On Twitter, keep track of retweets, both the old- and new-style versions. “Old-style” retweets have the prefix “RT” before the original tweet along with the handle of the originating account. Users may choose to add their own comments in the retweet, and may edit or winnow down the original text to fit their comments. “New-style” retweets are simply a reposting of the original tweet in the user’s timeline; they can’t make any changes to the original text. Depending on which tool you’re using to measure retweets, you may need to look in different views. For example, Hootsuite will not show new-style retweets in a “Mentions” view; you need to track them in the “Your Tweets, Retweeted” view.

On Facebook, look for both “likes” and “shares”. Whenever a user likes a post, it increments a “thumbs up” value associated with the post; all fans of the page see this value. If the user chooses to share your post, the original post will appear in the user’s timeline. They can also choose to add a comment to prefix the shared post.

Likes and new-style retweets are what I consider “lazy successes”. It takes a user only one click to perform these actions, so it may not indicate that they read the complete post or whether that post was informative, helpful, or useful to them. Facebook comments and shares, along with old-style Twitter retweets with additional text, are more valuable for quantitative feedback.

Use Query Variables or URL Shorteners

Whether you’re sending out links in your tweets and Facebook posts, including website URLs in direct mailings, or displaying QR codes in your promotional materials, go the extra mile to insure that you can properly measure user activity.

Several URL shortening services, such as bit.ly or Hootsuite’s ow.ly, have back-end reporting tools you can use to track and analyze click-throughs. Hootsuite can also overlay tweet click-throughs with your Google Analytics reports to show possible relationships between your posts and website traffic.

Query variables, which are additional pieces of information you can include in a website URL, can provide you with richer metrics. Web analytics applications and services such as WebTrends, Google Analytics, and Radian6 can collect information from query variables whenever a user visits the URL. What’s nice about these variables is that you define them: add whatever information you’d like to collect, such as the campaign’s name, a specific marketing code, or which channel you’re sending the URL out to. You can then work within your chosen analytics platform to track, monitor, and report on the variables.

Never Rely on a Single Metric

When it comes time to gather, analyze, and report on the results of your campaign, never base your success or failure on a single metric, such as followers or fans. Always use multiple measurements and track trends in their activity over time. This allows you to form the complete picture of your campaign, and makes you better informed about what contributed to the results.

Crossing the Finish Line

Building realistic expectations, setting your timeframe, defining your transactions, and understanding how ROI will relate to your campaign will all help immensely when it comes time to measure your efforts. Be diligent in checking (and responding to) active responses from your audience and how they’re spreading the word about your campaign. Give your measurements a boost by considering URL shorteners and query variables to supply additional information about your users. And, finally, don’t hang the success (or failure) of your efforts on a single value or metric.

As I mentioned at the start of this post, I don’t consider the thoughts I’ve gathered here as the “be-all-and-end-all” compendium of social media measurements. If there are specific methods or insights that have worked well for you, please feel free to share them in the comments.

I want to thank the good folks at Marketwire and the #smmeasure chats for helping to inspire this post. Their weekly social media measurement Twitter chats have been quite valuable in my own social media efforts, especially since metrics in this space are still not clearly defined or universal. The #smmeasure chats take place each Thursday at 12 noon Eastern Standard Time. Follow the @smmeasure Twitter account or the #smmeasure hashtag to participate.

Notes from Radian6’s Online Seminar on Open Leadership in Social Media

On Friday, July 30, 2010, I attended an online seminar hosted by Radian6 and starring Charlene Li, founder of Altimeter Group. Charlene talked about key points from her book, “Open Leadership: How Social Technology Can Transform the Way You Lead”. Below are some brief elaborations of the key points I live-tweeted during the seminar. You can listen to the entire recording on Radian6’s website.

Please note: All quoted text is attributed to Charlene, not me.

  • “You are no longer in control because of these social technologies. Have the confidence and humility to give up the need to be in control” of both the message and the medium.
  • The dialog between businesses and their customers is changing from formal press releases to chats on Facebook (John Deere) and question-and-answer sessions on Twitter (Best Buy’s Twelpforce). Starbucks is successful in crowdsourcing, for example, because they take the time to integrate it into their business (My Starbucks Idea). These relationships will deepen as the culture of sharing becomes more accepted.
  • Learn and listen first. There is a movement from traditional market research to “anyone who can do a search”. Learning comes ahead of dialog, supporting, and innovating. Monitoring tools are key t0 success in learning about your customers and their needs; free, online tools like Google Blog Search and Twitter’s search engine are great starting points for listening.
  • When businesses consider entering social media, they should think about blogs. “Blogs establish thought leadership” and showcase the act of sharing with your clients, partners, employees, etc. CEO blogs are good examples of this.
  • Respect that the relationship your users want with you may not include engaging; they may just want to watch. When responding to feedback found via social media monitoring, start with comments on blogs. Use a personal approach instead of simply acknowledging the post with “send me an e-mail”; it’s less unsettling and sets a more comfortable tone.
  • Pick one of your annual strategic goals where being open and social will have an impact. This decision is crucial for budget and buy-in from senior management.
  • Prepare your organization for the new relationships your company will have when going social. Think about how you’re going to engage negative comments or reviews. Prepare for failure. Encourage dialog to foster trust and speed recovery. Follow Google’s mantra: “Fail fast and fail smart”.
  • Create “sandbox covenants”: rules of engagement for how open your business will be in social media.
  • Trust is not an absolute; it is built over time. “You may not trust a lot, so you may need to start with a small base”. Make small gains and show discipline in order to gain trust in use of social media and openness. You can’t have trust without responsibility. Being open means understanding the promises you’re making by establishing a relationship with your customers; it requires accountability.
  • Explaining and updating are two ways people are often open within their organization. Being open doesn’t mean completely open, however; you don’t need to share everything. Most businesses have false sense of what “openness” means in social media.
  • The key employees to seek out when staffing social media channels are those who are “obsessed about developing that relationship [between the business and the customer]. They see themselves as the glue tying people together” and can come from any dept: PR, IT, marketing, investor relations, etc.
  • One of the biggest problems with social media in business is, “who owns the technology”. HP, for example, has multiple Facebook pages for their brands, but each has a consistent look-and-feel to help unite them.
  • Capturing social media information for compliance (a requirement for government agencies) is difficult. There are ways to accomplish this on the back-end, but can be a challenge to identify people. The structure of regulated industries can give a more defined focus on how to drive their efforts. Wells Fargo, Bank of America, and Pfizer are examples of large, regulated firms who are well-established in social media.

Some of the many quotable quotes from the seminar included:

  • “Can being more open help connect you with your customers? What do your customers what you to be more open about?”
  • “You never know what’s going to happen on the other side of that tweet.”
  • “I look at blogs and Twitter as two great cousins working together.”
  • “People realize [that social media] isn’t a bright, shiny object any more… it’s here to stay.”

Many thanks to Radian6 and Charlene for an excellent seminar.

Keeping Your Private Life Private: Social Networks Only Know What You Tell Them

Between Google Buzz and Facebook, discussions centered on privacy and the implications of using social networks having been hot topics so far this year. The issue certainly isn’t new, but it’s reaching critical mass now because of the players involved. With over 500 million unique users, Facebook is sitting on an exceedingly rich vein of personal information and usage data, and Google, of course, pretty much knows everything you’d ever need to learn. Both have advertisers chomping at the bit to know as much about you as possible to make that next sale. What’s their only barrier? Your privacy.

Right now, the primary difference between Facebook and Google is the basic structure of their networks. Google, for the most part, is an open network: various and sundry details about you and your browsing habits are collected and retained as you go about your business on the web, but these remain generally anonymous. Buzz started off on the wrong foot by trying to mix this anonymous, open data set with the more closed network of Gmail. Facebook, on the other hand, started off as a more closed network, where your information stayed relatively safe within the confines of your personal network. Their privacy settings, however, have evolved towards making much of your profile public by default, often with little fanfare or notice. The shifting walls of security in both Buzz and Facebook have given their users and privacy advocates plenty of heartburn. It’s good to see a constant hum of awareness about what is truly private and public, as a lot of folks don’t seem to be aware of what’s happening to their data, but there’s one key observation that I see missing from these discussions: social networks only know what you tell them. If you don’t want your personal details to be shared under any means or circumstances, then don’t share them in the first place. You’ll cease to be concerned about your privacy if you don’t sacrifice it. Facebook is not magical; it won’t tell CNN what shows you watch and suggest articles without your intervention.

Of course, I understand that one of the main points of social networks is the sharing of information. You obviously can’t and shouldn’t be fearful of sharing, but you can be aware of how much you do share. The very nature of these networks will make people who follow you seem eerily clairvoyant about your comings and goings, but if you keep your details to a relatively general and innocuous nature, there’s neither harm nor foul. To that end, I’ve collected a few thoughts I hope will get you thinking more about your social privacy.

Always assume you’re talking in a room where you can be overheard. Closed networks like Facebook can be penetrated by those willing to be patient and creative, so don’t share things that would make you embarrassed, get you kicked out of your preferred religious place of worship, fired, or cause you to be incarcerated if it were suddenly made public to everyone. Stick to the facts. Don’t overshare. Be very mindful about broadcasting your location on tools like Fourquare. Folks running on the right side of the law are not the only ones being creative with these networks.

Never settle for the default settings. If you’re just joining a social network, check your surroundings carefully before you reveal anything significant about yourself. Is the network open or closed by default? Is there an all-or-nothing set of options, or can you customize? A great quote I read on Twitter this week made the analogy that leaving your default settings unchanged was “like streaking in public”.

Stay informed about your network. If there’s an option to receive e-mails whenever the network makes a change, sign up for it. Follow resources like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Help Net Security to learn about changes in privacy policies or security incidents that you may need to worry about. It never hurts to review your account preferences on a regular basis to confirm that you’re sharing (or hiding) exactly what you want.

Avoid revealing “security questions”. Banking and financial websites like to ask you “security questions” they feel “only you can answer” should you forget your user name or password. They’re usually along the lines of “what was your first pet’s name?” or “what is your mother’s maiden name?”, and are intended to decrease the likelihood of someone getting access to your account. People tend to be nice and chatty on social networks, and it’s become much easier for scammers to learn more about you. Social engineers look at what you post, what you like, who you talk to and follow, and use these details to fill in the blanks. Avoid talking about the subjects of your security questions or pick ones that are more obscure. The same goes for passwords: find something memorable but ephemeral: What song has been in your head recently? Was state does last week’s Powerball winner live in? What’s your cat’s least favorite toy? You get the idea.

Keep an eye on your friends. In networks like Facebook, where you can be tagged to photos or videos taken of you, with or without your knowledge, it’s important to stay aware of what your friends and colleagues are doing with your data, and, to a larger extent, your reputation. Make sure your account notifications are set up so that you’re sent an e-mail or text whenever someone associates anything in their profile with you. Don’t be afraid to tell people you don’t want anything posted without your permission; it is you, after all. Also, don’t “friend” people who you think will be less than trustworthy with your personal information. Check to see how much they make public, and then imagine how much of your profile would end up there if they start tagging your posts.

The struggles with your public presence and what you choose to keep private will continue to change as social networks progress in their evolution, but you can stay ahead of the game with a dose of skepticism and some healthy common sense.

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