Privacy is currently a hot topic in the market research industry. Some of our colleagues are worried that consumers will stop sharing their data, as Greg Heist discussed in Greenbook earlier this month.
Often, the focus tends to be on researchers’ ability to access data – either data is entirely public, or it is entirely private. But I think privacy is much more than whether or not data is public. It is also about the context of that data. Who is accessing the data and why can be just as important as what data they are accessing. So that’s what I want to discuss with you today.
Image by Flickr user James Cridland
Do ‘oversharing’ teenagers care about privacy?
Teen social media use provides a fantastic illustration of the importance of context as part of privacy. Teens put a lot of their data online. According to a PewResearch survey in 2013:
- 92% post their real name to the profile they use the most
- 91% post a photo of themselves on social media
- 71% post a city or town where they live
- 53% post an e-mail address.
Being public doesn’t seem to bother them that much. Indeed, 64% of teens on Twitter have public profiles, and a good percentage, 12%, don’t even know if their tweets are public or private.
But, as any parent of a teen will tell you, privacy is very important to them. But for teens privacy isn’t a simple binary of putting personal information online or not – instead it’s about managing the context of who sees what and engages with what on their profiles. danah boyd, a Principle Researcher at Microsoft Research and Assistant Professor at NYU, has worked extensively with teens around privacy.
As she points out, “While adults are often anxious about shared data that might be used by government agencies, advertisers, or evil older men, teens are much more attentive to those who hold immediate power over them – parents, teachers, college admissions officers, army recruiters, etc.”
Teens try to manage the context of their discussions. For example, according to the Pew survey 58% of teen social media users use inside jokes or other ways to hide the meaning of their messages. They hide the meaning and the context of the messages, not the access to the messages themselves.
I don’t think this emphasis on context is isolated to children. The internet allows us to network, share our thoughts and see the thoughts of others. In many ways, the very public nature of it is the draw. Yet people are still concerned about privacy. To see this dichotomy in action, let’s take the new LinkedIn member blocking feature.
The need to be public, the need to retain privacy
The story of this new blocking feature actually began in April of last year when a petition was posted on Change.org asking LinkedIn to implement better privacy features.
A woman named Anne R. was being stalked by a man who had sexually assaulted her at work. After she left the job, he continued to harass her online. The problem was that, unlike just about every other social media website out there, LinkedIn did not have a block feature. She wanted a professional experience on LinkedIn, but her stalker had other ideas. She couldn’t control her situation, and that was the problem.
Her options at the time were to either change her name on the site or remove herself from the site entirely. But that, she argued in her petition, was in essence sacrificing her networking opportunities in the face of something she was powerless to prevent. In other words, she wanted her information to be public. Just not available to the man who was stalking her.
Anne’s problem wasn’t that her data was public. Yes, that was part of the situation, but what she was concerned about was the social context she found herself in. She wanted to carry on her life, specifically engaging in professional networking on a service that promised just that. What she got was a nightmare. She wanted her data available to other people who would respect the professional context, not to people who would victimize her.
And she wasn’t alone. Taking a quick look at the stories people shared on the petition website, we can see a variety of situations and people. These stories came from both men and women and covered a variety of topics, from digital stalking by an abusive former boss to fears of a harasser finding their phone numbers or where they work.
Taking care with context
Protecting our data from exploitation by companies or spying by our governments is important. I’m certainly not trying to belittle the importance of data management. But I think that treating it as just data removes the human element that is really at the root of these concerns.
People want to control what situations they find themselves in. They don’t want things taken out of context and used that way, or even just have an organization jump in when they were having a nice chat with a friend – regardless that it is on a public site.
As market researchers, particularly social media researchers, we have to understand what the privacy debate is really about. Many are worried that people will choose to stop communicating on open channels where we can access their data. While some behavior may change, I don’t think people will stop sharing on public sites entirely. People like talking and sharing with people they may not know, as well as just with their friends. But they don’t want these public engagements to be taken out of context, or for that context to suddenly change out from underneath them.
As social media marketers, we have to widen the privacy debate beyond the black and white of data access. We have to respect the context of the data, perhaps even try to protect it by helping our clients understand what types of discussions are okay to join and what aren’t, or what types of insights are good to use in ad copy or communications overtly, and which are probably best left as subtext. We need to help our clients respect consumers’ control over context online, not just the access to data.