Let’s play Buzzword Bingo for a moment. The average internet user, logging on to Facebook or Twitter or MySpace to find family and friends, has no idea what “social graph”, “social leverage”, “semantic web”, “online presence”, “social engagement”, etc means in the online world. They are just so many buzzwords floating in the wind. Heck, a lot of self proclaimed social media ‘experts’ don’t know, either – not really. That lack of knowledge are what companies like Facebook who use mining your personal data as a business model bank on when they make frequent UI (user interface) changes and launch things like Beacon (from a few years ago) or this week’s “Like” feature.
Why pick on Facebook when companies like Google have similar issues? Because Facebook’s mangling of user privacy is quite intentional, happens frequently, affects even those who don’t really ‘live’ online like some of us do; whereas for Google it is more a side effect of the services they offer than a purposeful business model, I think, and one that has a severe downside for them in a variety of ways. Think back to the Buzz launch recently and the issues and outcry that caused for Google. Because it isn’t their business model, but a side effect, they were quite quick to remedy the issue.
Facebook’s launch of what I’m thinking of as the ‘ubiquitous like’ puts user apathy, lack of internet education and the need for awareness front and center for me. Why user apathy? Think about it: how many of the internet users you know are proactive about checking their privacy settings on all platforms weekly, and again with every new change like the ubiquitous like, and diligent about reading those long, boring TOS (Terms of Service) and EULA (End User License Agreement) pages regularly (or heck, even just when signing on the first time)? Not many, right?
A lack of education and awareness about common internet practices, best practices and being proactive about your own basic online safety comes into play also. So many companies and educational institutions still don’t have even a basic social media education, much less any sort of social media or online guidelines for their employees and students. It’s appalling, and it’s creating and/or reinforcing a gullible, overly trusting generation of users who can’t figure out how to protect themselves, or worse, don’t see a need to.
Not knowing how much this apathy and lack of knowledge and awareness can affect you in terms of privacy and safety is the greatest cost on the internet right now for the end user. Each time you interact blindly online, it has a potential consequence, of varying degrees of import, no matter where you are. This is no different from real life interactions, but for some reason, people have trouble making the mental leap that there is no more great divide between online and offline life anymore. There is no separation of personal and professional, and things you share actually go a variety of places and programs to be sifted, studied, archived, stored, and used.
You might wonder why someone who has a strong social media component to my job would advocate for caution. That’s just it, I’m advocating for caution and awareness, not silence or lack of sharing! The engagement you find online has many more positives than negatives, but just like anything you do, inherent risks that you can take time to minimize.
On Foursquare? I am. I love Foursquare. Don’t check in a location alone. Simple common sense. Don’t leave your home unattended if you have ever checked in there and then go on a trip (though I’d recommend against home check ins anyway for safety reasons). Again, common sense. On Twitter? Having a public Twitter fight? Talking about your drug use? Crowing about cheating the tax man? Talking about how you evade your collection agent? All of that is indexed by Google and out there for all to see (and now also by the Library of Congress). Again, this is all common sense. On Facebook? I bet you haven’t checked your privacy setting in eons. Go to this post by GigaOm and check (and change) them right now. You may be shocked at what Facebook is tracking, all because apathy makes people not go back and make sure their privacy settings haven’t changed on a fairly frequent basis.
There are hundreds of social networks out there and they all have some benefit to users and to companies and organizations. the positives FAR outweigh the negatives – many of my business collaborators and close friends are those I’ve met online through three years on Twitter and time spent cultivating relationships on Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. But don’t be stupid about it, folks – just like in real life, look both ways before you cross the street, don’t take candy from strangers, etc. You learned everything you need to know to be safe online in kindergarten, I promise, you just need to be proactive about your own safety and privacy.