Social Networking: You are the Product

Social Networking is the hottest property on the internet. Social Networks (SoNets) allow better targeted marketing and allow companies a glimpse into who is buying their products.

Most companies on the internet either have or are working on ways to establish  positive mindshare by encouraging customers to talk about their products and build communities based on common product interests.

It used to be that the best source for information on what people were buying was financial institutions, which tracked what each account was buying, as well as large retailers that offered a wide range of products. Getting this valuable data was expensive and not always easy. Slowly, large online retailers discovered cross-promotion and established partnerships sharing customer information.

Then social networks (SoNets) came along and kicked over the traditional model. Any company knows that its customers are their best advertisers, but until SoNets came around there was no effective way to tap into that. There are now companies that try to determine and track the opinion makers and leaders of social circles. Collecting the wisdom of the crowd is being packaged and sold by market research firms that have taken to the internet: profile-mining for profit.

It may sound paranoid, but corporations know more today about our preferences than science fiction writers, just a few decades ago, imagined the government would. And the greatest thing about it — for the corporations — is that most people are giving away this information for free.  Although, they do offer baubles like badges and awards to those who provide their personal information.

The default for most social networks is that everything a person posts, “likes” or “+1s” is shared with the global community of users. When your friends see that you like a band, they are more likely to check it out. They are also more likely to form a positive opinion thanks to the associative properties of the human mind.

Even after locking down your feed to only friends, if you “Like” or “+1” something, it gets reported to the entity that put up the button. In some cases that also allows the corporation to view your profile. Their next step is to aggregate the data and study the patterns to understand the profile of their fans. This helps marketers determine how to target their campaigns. If a SoNet information analyst notices that a lot of people who like their brand also like certain artists or activities, then they can target people with similar profiles to find more potential customers.

What was once difficult and expensive to collect is now as simple as assigning one internet savvy person to adapt current marketing material to the product page and let the information pour in. If a company is smart, they also have internet savvy, personable employees interact with their product fans and encourage positive discussions about the product. Even smarter ones use this free direct connection to their customers to improve their products.

I’m not against these practices in principle, but there is too little protection for customers. If it were up to me, I would pass legislation that extends consumer protection and privacy laws by requiring all sharing to be opt-in by default, all customer data to be stored with current strong encryption, and ban selling or trading customer information for reasons other than providing a customer requested service. If a company were to go bankrupt or was sold, before the user data was transferred to a new entity, each customer would have to approve the transfer of their information to the new company. Essentially the goal would be to put people in charge of their data and make advertisers pay them to license it.

I am the product they are selling; it’s my personal information and preferences, and I want my fair share for what amounts to my intellectual property. Why should I give services such as Spotify my complete list of Facebook contacts and things unrelated to music for a mere 10 hours a month of listening, complete with commercials? Why would I want the public to know that I am at least an hour from home by checking in on Foursquare or posting a message on Google+, Facebook or Twitter with my location tagged in it? The Please Rob Me website explains why this is a bad idea.

Facebook has slapped the deceivingly pleasant word “frictionless” onto this practice of broadcasting everything you do through a SoNet, rather than making the service not to share with everyone by default. The more you share; the more they make.

What’s worse is that one of my personal gripes: content posted in people’s feeds that they didn’t generate is becoming more commonplace. In my opinion, allowing an application to post a generic message to your feed automatically is not only rude and disrespectful of your followers, but makes you just another marketing tool. If I post something about a product to my feed, it is because I think it is worth my friends’ time to check out. Hell, I’ll sing the praises of things I think everyone should try quite loudly — and without the baubles: “Badges? We don’t need no stinkin’ badges.”

I am always cautious with following links, and I check what the true URL is before clicking if possible. But increasingly, I’ve also become leery of clicking links on SoNet sites I’m logged into, with the exception of news aggregate sites such as Reddit and Digg where the whole point is to share news. Often if you look at links (in marketing emails or on sites you are logged into), they have some sort of way to track who you are and where you came from: sometimes it is a unique number after a question mark or sometimes it is your e-mail address. I often edit those or just go to the original source instead of using the link.

Facebook’s recent run in with the FTC for overstepping privacy boundaries by making private information public reminded me of salespeople using the “bait and switch” tactic on unsuspecting consumers. Then recently a researcher found that even logged out Facebook users are laying down cookie trails that could be easily traced back to them only accentuate the problem. (,2817,2393564,00.asp )

It seems like at least once a month for the past few years there’s a story about a company’s customer database getting hacked or accidentally released. Check out how many don’t reach the news here: if you don’t believe me. If not security breaches, then the news story is related to other privacy concerns. Thanks to the GPS chip now required in all mobile phones or integral to OnStar’s service, your probable location is only a court order or hack away. What’s worse is that some companies are rewriting their terms of service to include clauses that make you agree to allow your information, including your location to be traded at will as a term of service, or even allow them to track you after you unsubscribe in the case of OnStar. ( )

At some point this has got to stop or else walking through a mall will resemble the Scene in Minority report. John Anderton (played by Tom Cruise) walks through a shopping center and interactive video advertisements targeted at the person whose eyes he has pop up and follow him. The only exception will be they’ll be accurately targeted at you by using facial recognition linked to your SoNet profile courtesy of you, for free. Would that be so bad? Hey, I’d love to know when Loius CK decides to put out another special direct to web free of DRM or other stupid limits for the price of a large mocha. However, I’d rather chose to sign up to his email list and avoid someone deciding I must also like Robin Williams if I like comedy. I don’t. Privacy watchdogs have been sounding the alarm for a long time, but it just can’t hold a candle to the 3Oh3/Katy Perry video playing on the next link over. (You’ll have to search for “3oh3” and “Katy Perry” video because I’d rather you spent your time looking at any of the articles linked above.)

Continued Reading:

3 thoughts on “Social Networking: You are the Product

  1. Pingback: Tech News Doesn’t Stop When I Have Other Things to Do « The Chronicles of NoiVad

  2. Pingback: Why Social Networks Are Making Life Complicated

  3. Pingback: The Corps… | The Chronicles of NoiVad

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