Facebook: We’re All More Naked than We Thought. And Somebody’s Always At The Peephole.

March 17, 2012 1:34 pm

“If you’re not paying for something, you’re not the customer. You’re the product being sold.” – Andrew Lewis

I’ve always assumed that posting anything on a social network is an inherently public act. No matter what the privacy agreements say, it’s best to assume that on the Internet we’re fairly naked — even if we’re not Scarlett Johansson.

A good rule of thumb: never post anything online or say something in an email that you wouldn’t want your Mom or your boss to see.

Facebook PrivacyBut the latest Facebook changes are far more invasive than many people may realize. With these changes, Facebook is changing the rules of social media — and not for the better.

The New Rules of Social Media

Rule 1: We’re all more naked than we ever realized.

Rule 2: Somebody is ALWAYS at the peephole.

As Dave Winer said, “People joke that privacy is over, but I don’t think they imagined that the disclosures would be so proactive. They are seeking out information to report about you.”

If you connect “Read, Watch, Listen” apps to your Facebook account, they will automatically send a link to anything that you read, without you taking an action.

Let that sink in. ANYTHING you read, see or listen to. WITHOUT you taking an action.

That’s very different than you “Liking” an article, or posting a link. Facebook will tell people what you read, without any commentary from you. It suggests you “Like” the article, even if you think it’s the most moronic thing you’ve ever seen.

As Ben Parr at Mashable puts it, “We’re at the point of no return. Facebook’s passive sharing will change how we live our lives. More and more, the things we do in real life will end up as Facebook posts (and even if it’s) being posted just to our friends, it only takes one friend to share that information with his or her friends to start a viral chain. Sharing with just your friends doesn’t protect your privacy.”

The Giants at the Peephole

Anything you can say about Facebook privacy probably applies to Google+. And Google already has data on everything you’ve ever searched for, and has read your Google Mail.

Did you know Twitter, Google+ and Facebook track your visits to any web page that uses “Follow”, “+1” or Like buttons – whether you ever click those buttons or not? And that logging out of Facebook isn’t enough?

Nielsen’s exclusive partnership with Facebook (Online Campaign Ratings) gives them access to Facebook’s extraordinary wealth of data about consumers’ online behavior. Facebook has the largest Hadoop cluster in the world: 30 Petabytes as of March 2011. That’s 3,000 times bigger than the Library of Congress.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy: The Counterarguments

“But there’s no personally identifiable information!” True, Facebook anonymizes the ad viewership data it collects. It doesn’t tell Nielsen you specifically saw an ad. It adds you to a demographic group (e.g. age/location/gender) and ships that grouped and anonymized data to Nielsen.

It’s true that “male, married, jolly, white beard, owns reindeer, lives at the North Pole, works Christmas Eve” isn’t PII. But it’s also true that any 5 year old could guess who we’re talking about.

“But you opted-in to all of this data collection when you authorized the app!” True, but the opt-ins are typically buried in long EULAs. Many of these opt-ins are not explicit. Were you surprised the first time you went to a publisher’s web site and saw your Facebook picture? I was. I didn’t think, “Yep, I remember authorizing that.” And going back to an earlier point, how many consumers do you think understand that Twitter, Google+ and Facebook track their visits to any web page that uses “Follow”, “+1” or “Like”? My guess is the number is very close to zero.

Does Privacy Have To Lose For Advertising To Win?

Digital has invested a fortune chasing the dream of knowing exactly who we’re advertising to, exactly when they’re in the market, and exactly what message to deliver to ensure that they buy the right brand. I worry that our industry shares a sort of unspoken agreement: “Maybe the erosion of privacy is sort of creepy. But it’s a total win for advertisers, so…”

I think it’s time we start questioning that assumption, and not just because of its slippery morality.

As an exercise, let’s set the morality question aside entirely for a moment: Is it really a win?

If we’re not quite at the end of the privacy invasion rainbow, we can see it from here. So… where’s the gold? If all of this really worked, wouldn’t we know it by now? Shouldn’t clickthrough rates be climbing like crazy? Shouldn’t online CPMs be skyrocketing? Shouldn’t we see junk email and CPA deals disappearing in favor of personalized advertising? Where are all the efficiencies we’ve been talking about? Shouldn’t we be seeing CPG marketers diverting more and more money from TV to digital?

If having so much data about our customers was the nirvana we’ve been promised, we should be watching these numbers climb inexorably higher every year. But they’re not. Every one of the key indicators is flat or falling.

It’s time to start asking some harder questions.

Does privacy really have to lose for advertising to win?

Are we ready to question the assumption that for brand advertising, more data guarantees better results?

At what point do brands have a moral obligation to start saying no?

Photo Credit: Metro Centric (Creative Commons)

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