Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Are Social Media Platforms Getting Too Close to the Creepy Line?

David A. Schweidel

In an interview with The Atlantic, Google’s Eric Schmidt commented that “Google policy is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it.” In the same interview, Schmidt also noted that, “With your permission you give us more information about you, about your friends, and we can improve the quality of our searches.” That’s the fundamental exchange that users have entered into with Google. In exchange for organizing the world’s information via its search engine and providing tools such as Gmail at no financial cost, you give Google the right to make use of all the information you provide through your online activities. Google spells out in its terms of service that, “when you upload submit, store, send or receive content to or through our Services, you give Google (and those we work with) a worldwide license to use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works (such as those resulting from translations, adaptations or other changes we make so that your content works better with our Services), communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content. The rights you grant in this license are for the limited purpose of operating, promoting, and improving our Services, and to develop new ones.”

In exchange for organizing the world’s information via its search engine and providing tools such as Gmail at no financial cost, you give Google the right to make use of all the information you provide through your online activities

The same holds true when you make use of social media platforms. When you use Twitter, you agree that by “submitting, posting or displaying Content on or through the Services, you grant us [Twitter] a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license (with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, reproduce, process, adapt, modify, publish, transmit, display and distribute such Content.” When users upload content to Facebook, “For content that is covered by intellectual property rights, like photos and videos (IP content), you specifically give us [Facebook] the following permission, subject to your privacy and application settings: you grant us [Facebook] a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook.”

In exchange for the online services to which we’ve become accustomed, we provide detailed information about ourselves. What we’re interested in, the places that we’ve visited or are considering visiting, the people to whom we’re connected. And, according to the terms of service that we’ve agreed to, social media platforms can use that information. One way in which this information is put to use is to serve up advertisements that are targeted to us. Sponsored stories, promoted tweets, and promoted pins are all just advertisements. Instead of showing those advertisements to everyone, marketers select whom they’d like to target, hopefully with more precision thanks to the information available to social media platforms.

Another way in which the information that we provide is put to use is by making the data we exchange available to other businesses for marketing purposes. Twitter provides access to its treasure trove of data through Datasift and recently acquired Gnip. In 2013, Twitter generated more than $70 million in revenue from licensing its data. Why would marketers want access to the data? Beyond advertising on the social media platforms directly, such data offer insight into consumers that can be used to power other marketing efforts. The messaging used in television advertisements could be informed by online conversations. Such conversations can offer a quick read on the efficacy of television advertising and suggest which movies are likely to earn more at the box office. Those same conversations are also useful to brand managers who can use it to monitor the health of their brands.

Recognizing the value of the data consumers provide, social media platforms are simply making use of one of their most valuable resources. But, not everyone appears to see it that way, as a media firestorm erupted following an academic study that brought attention to Facebook’s conducting experiments with its user base. Though experimentation is the norm for online businesses, some have likened such studies to treating users as lab rats and questioned the ethics of the work. Whichever side of the debate you fall on, the controversy should force social media platforms and other online businesses to reevaluate how they communicate their data practices to their consumers. Will doing so lead consumers to flee those online service providers engaging in experimentation en masse? Probably not. But, increasing transparency will provide consumers with information to make informed decisions about how they use the services, and it could go a long way toward alleviating the concerns of privacy advocates and regulators.

About The Author

David A. Schweidel

David A. Schweidel is the co-author of Social Media Intelligence....

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