Millennial Think Tank: What Responsibility Do Social Networks Have to Their Users and Brand?

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This week we tackled a subject we touched on in our Globalization hangout: what responsibility do social networks have in regards to their users privacy? The question was of course more complex than that, because we covered both user safety, user responsibility, and the branding issues social networks face. Joining our panel this week were:

  • Joe Cardillo, an older Millennial, Content and Analytics specialist.
  • Samantha Estoesta, a young Millennial working in Public Interest Research
  • Tiffany Daniels, an older Millennial working in Government & Community Relations
  • Albert Quian, a young Millennial working in Silicon Valley.
  • Laura Petrolino, an older Milleniall and Client Services Director at Arment Dietrich

You can watch the entire hangout here, or continue below for our recap:

We dove right into the heart of the issue:

What responsibility to Social Networks have to their users regarding privacy?

In an earlier hangout DJ Thistle put forward the idea that because social networks are free, users should understand that they give up privacy in exchange for using the free technology. Laura agreed that you give up a certain amount of privacy, but that there is a social contract of sorts and the networks should alert users to exactly how they are giving up their privacy. She thinks that there are choices you can make within Facebook or other networks to protect yourself, and that they are sufficient. She believes that Facebook gives you enough of those choices, and that because it’s voluntary the user really has no say.

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Hessie disagreed, and asked the panel to think about how far the networks would go to protect you IF your privacy was violated in a way that you were assured it wouldn’t be. I gave this example:

A friend of mine had his profile copied, and the perpetrator send threatening and vulgar messages in his name to his family, friends and professional connections. The offender also sent him images of his own home and made horrific threats against his wife. Facebook did nothing other than shutting down the fake profile. It took the local police over a month to get information from Facebook and track down the offender.

Joe believes that social networks have a moral and ethical duty to protect their users more, and rejected the idea that just because they are free does not mean the user should give up their rights to privacy.

Albert agreed with Laura, and believes there are enough tools for the user to toggle their privacy. He also talked about internet culture in general, and how it is quite mean. He believes that the terms and agreement sheet you sign when you opt in is sufficient; the rules are clearly there. He also brought up the point that customer service is not part of how the social networks make money; they don’t add to the bottom line, and therefore silicon valley doesn’t value it.

This resignation of privacy made me press harder, and I referenced Kiernan’s statement from an earlier hangout when he said that the networks are not, in fact, free. That Google and Facebook etc. were all getting data rich because of their users, and that is how they make their money. To me, the bigger issue isn’t about the deal we make when we sign up for a social network, it’s about the breaches that happen frequently.

What about privacy or safety breaches on the social networks?

Joe referenced a woman who showed her direct messages on Twitter that were filled with threats against her life. He believes strongly that in those instances social networks must do more to protect their users. Samantha brought up FIPPA, the Freedom of Information and Personal Privacy act that the Canadian Government passed. Although you can be arrested for breaking the law, Social Networks aren’t cooperating with law enforcement.

Albert thought it was very important that we understand that these Social Networks are businesses, and they are accountable to their shareholders. Customer service does not drive revenue, so, how do you scale customer service for a Social Network? How does it make business sense for them? Joe came back to the fact that the internet is NOT free, and that protecting your users against people who are breaking laws is essential – if these threats were made off line criminal charges would be filed. He believes that the social networks who publish news and make money off of their connection to their users and the information they publish, should be held accountable.

Albert sees social networks as middlemen…that news simply breaks faster on social rather than the major networks. He therefore questions the role they should play in regulating the information posted by users. And to me, that is the heart of the matter: mainstream journalism is held accountable – there are journalistic standards. Social Media is the Wild West where no one is holding anyone accountable.

What about the random way that networks step in?

One of the most frustrating parts of all of this is the random way the networks enforce their rules. I brought up Twitter shutting down the one Anonymous handle when it released the alleged name of the police officer who shot Michael Brown, but did nothing to stop the harassment of Robin Williams’ daughter following his suicide.

Laura said yes, there are rampant inconsistencies on both Facebook and Twitter; some people are protected more than others. Because there are no set rules, enforcement is random and totally inconsistent.

Tumblr was described as the wildest, most inconsistent network of all.

Is anything going to change?

Because of where he works and the statements he made already, I had to ask Albert if he thought there was any hope of things changing. His reply made me laugh, and was sort of heartbreaking at the same time:

You know, I feel like I stopped caring a long time ago. Because I work in this industry, and I have to do what I have to do to make a living in it. I just say less… I feel a lot happier when I don’t post on Facebook for a couple of days.

When it comes to working in this industry, you gave up your privacy a long time ago.

He chooses not to disclose a lot on social media, and is more of a spectator. He encouraged people to get off line, pick up the phone, go have a cup of coffee with someone. Albert also thinks that a female’s experience on social media is very different. He talked about the comments women get when they post pictures.

Have a life off of social

Both Laura and Albert talked about the need to have a Real Life. Too many people’s lives are far too ‘online.’ Albert talked about the fear of missing out, and the obsession with our phones and always seeing what everyone else is doing in their fabulous lives. He talked about really choosing what you let into your life via social… and how it’s as important as what you put into your body. You need to be comfortable with hitting the hide this or unfollow button.

Joe has long been a champion of the quiet space in his own head; he manages social media closely and makes sure he cuts out the distractions. He did, however challenge the notion that we have control over what goes into our feed, and pointed to the recently disclosed Facebook ‘psychological tests’ where they ran negative stories through user feeds to see the reactions.

If you could pay a subscription fee and be guaranteed privacy, would you?

When I asked this question, only Albert and Tiffany said they wouldn’t pay. Tiffany wanted to know if she would still have access to everything she has on the free sites. I told her there would be no ads, and guaranteed privacy. Albert said he can install AdBlock and get rid of the ads, but you can’t get rid of the noise. He doesn’t see the value because he doesn’t think it would change much.

Tiffany thinks it’s just too late. Laura agreed, referencing all of the free content out there, making it impossible to charge for it; she thinks the same is true of social – we can’t go back and start over.

What responsibility do social networks have to provide information globally?

We tried to tackle the massive subject of how social networks provide information outside of the US. If a culture and country do not value freedom of information the way Americans and Canadians do, what is social media to do about it? Hessie brought up the Arab Spring and the communication Twitter allowed.

Twitter often becomes THE source for information on breaking news, like the Israeli/Palestinian war. Because of that, what responsibility do they have? Joe brought up the fact that Twitter refused to show James Foley’s beheading, and how their policy states that they have the right to make editorial decisions on what is shown on their site. That is a reality we all must live with, because no one is holding the networks accountable.

How responsible are users when it comes to their privacy?

Although it wasn’t a social network, the celebrity photo hacking that recently occurred made us question how responsible are users for having their information anywhere that it is hackable? Many arguments raged on Facebook with some saying that the celebrities should have known better and not had nude pictures on their phone. Our panel agreed that the user should have the right to expect that their own property remain private. They see storage as very different than using social media.

Where are we at?

I had to sum up by refuting the idea that someone should just get off of social media if they’re concerned about privacy. I believe that for so many reasons, including personal and business issues, social media is a necessity for many. So what are we left with? That social networks have no responsibility? They have editorial control and no responsibility because it’s free? I understand the cynicism, but I just can’t buy that.

There is no easy answer, but I’m with Joe when he says that the networks should HAVE to explain their decisions and behavior. Hessie believes that governments will have to allow social networks to self regulate or it will undermine the very essence of what a social network is. Albert brought up the fact that social networks are global, and cultural mores will play into how someone sees ethics in social media. The internet is a ‘wild place,’ and it’s difficult to draw the line on right and wrong.

I just can’t get my head around the fact that social networks have no accountability. The random nature of enforcing their own rules doesn’t sit right with me. We are still in the infancy of Social Media; the rules are not set in stone. But somethings need to change.

Photo credit: flickrohit via photopin cc.


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