Toeing the line between privacy and social media

The new era in social media is no longer simply knowing what your friends are doing - it's knowing where they are doing it.
Written by Jennifer Leggio, Contributor

Guest editorial by Adam Rosenberg, Center for Democracy & Technology

If you are a social media enthusiast, then by now you already know that if 2009 was the year of the "tweet," then 2010 is almost certainly the year of the "check-in."

Social networks and applications have been churning out location-enabled features this year at an alarming rate.  At SXSW, arguably one of the premiere tech conferences of the year, apps like Gowalla and Foursquare were essentially the lifeblood of the attendees.  It's not just new networks that are playing in the location space - Google Buzz, Twitter and (possibly) Facebook are all dipping their feet in the location-enabled pool.  The new era in social media is no longer simply knowing what your friends are doing - it's knowing where they are doing it.

As a greater number of location-based features have been rolled out, so too, has greater attention been given to the potential privacy ramifications brought on by these new trends in social media.  Sites like PleaseRobMe and CheckinMania - two sites that aggregate public location status updates from a number of social networks - have given us just a glimpse of how much data is floating out there as we walk the line between "oversharing" and simply "being social."

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As the social media director for a privacy organization the conflict between the seemingly opposing worlds of oversharing and being social can aptly be described as Buzz vs. Buzzkill - pun intended. As I experienced at SXSW with my own eyes social media specialists are drawn to the new "toys" and the "location-broadcasting" trend because of its inherent ability to connect and share with ease, arguably the core definition of "being social."   The social media junkie in me was all over the concept of networking with the push of a button, instantly sharing ideas and information.  This is a space where meeting strangers is actually preferred.  The Internet is a tool for constant connecting of new ideas and people.  However, the privacy advocate in me - like the classic voice of reason that tells us cookies before bed are a terrible idea - reminded me that it's important to raise awareness about oversharing and the privacy issues that surround these new services.  With every "check-in" and "locational" tweet, I was exposing valuable information about myself to third-party applications.  The more I shared, the more precise a consumer profile I created for myself.  That profile, in turn, could be used by an online advertiser eager to sell me products, all based on my online purchasing habits now neatly tucked away in some digital file, stored in some digital location, of which I have no knowledge or control over.  Yes, it's all pretty standard targeting stuff:  sell people what they're likely to want.  Unfortunately, people don't always want to give that profiling information out in the first place but find they've unwittingly done so simply by booting up that cool new "must have" location-based app that everyone's talking about.

Don't get me wrong - social media enthusiasts definitely want privacy and user control over their own data and information - their first thoughts, however, when finding out about a new app are usually more along the lines of "how will this help me meet new people?" versus "I wonder how much of my data might be exposed?"  Those in the social media space have definitely gotten up in arms when their privacy seemed threatened (see:  the Facebook Terms of Service change from a few years ago or Google's launch of Buzz), but its hard to find them proactively putting privacy needs at the forefront of their search for the next shiny new toy.  These users have an expectation that the creators of these apps are prioritizing user privacy when they are made.  Big mistake. Because when their preconceived notions about how private their information actually is gets turned upside down, it ends up souring any positive experience with that location-enabled app.

Simply put, if you assume that developers are looking out for your best privacy interests from the get go, you're in for a wake up call.

Preaching Moderation and User Control

The answer to this "social media conundrum" is finding ways to balance social networking and privacy by preaching moderation and increasing user control.   It's giving users control over what-and how-their information is shared by these applications (and making those controls easy to use and locate) that helps bridge the gap between privacy and social media.  This is the key to bringing these two worlds together; when  users are given the ability to make choices about what they want to share, both sides win.  When people are aware of the ramifications of their actions online and know what they are signing up for, they have made their choice and weighed the risks- no matter how much personal data that may involve.

Whether it's simply a loophole that can be exposed in Foursquare or just a result of standard use of the application - the demand for better user controls over privacy in these applications must continue.  Though discussing privacy settings of web sites and applications may not seem as sexy as declaring mayorships at local eateries - it's important and vital to both sides that these discussions occur.  User controls and the ability to share information at ease may seem to be in different worlds, but they don't have to be strangers forever.  After all - earning a "Privacy Badge" may not be too far off.

Adam Rosenberg is the New Media Manager at the Center for Democracy & Technology (www.cdt.org), where he manages the organization's online communications, social media and advocacy efforts.  Prior to joining CDT, Adam worked at APCO Worldwide, a global strategic communications and public affairs firm, where he worked a variety of projects including online and grassroots communications, media relations, social marketing and media, message development and issue advocacy campaigns for non-profit and corporate clients. Previously, Adam served as a campaign consultant for several political candidates and elected officials.

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