Privacy and Our Social Norms

Earlier this month, two news stories tackling the same issue, society’s views on privacy, caught my eye. Although it’s been a few weeks and pundits across the internet are likely to have added their two cents, I wanted to share my thoughts on how the two stories highlight very different parts of the issue.

In an interview that spread like wildfire through the blogosphere and that I’m sure was a trending topic on Twitter, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg defended Facebook’s latest changes to its privacy settings as reflecting “current social norms”. Despite a history of legal challenges that have required Facebook to give more control over how a user can restrict access to his or her information, the latest privacy settings encouraged more sharing. Although users were required to approve changes to their settings, there was a risk of being misled. Some basic information was now public domain, whether one liked it or not, and the new default was different than the user’s previous settings.

Although Zuckerberg claims that this is part of an evolving society, I wish that he had used some of Facebook’s analytic tools, so useful in describing status message trends or users’ happiness index (a study that was performed by a good friend of mine, so I’m happy to link to it), to demonstrate how users had willingly publicized more information when given the opportunity. Perhaps those active in such online communities are more likely to complain than praise, but I saw the new policy met with an explosion of groups protesting it and at least one friend who contemplated leaving Facebook over her privacy concerns. Without a good statistical survey, however, it’s hard to track how deep the emotions run on either side of the issue.

The day after this story broke, privacy was clearly still on the minds of people in the media. CNBC aired a segment on “Peeping Products” as part of their afternoon programming. They led into it with overtones of doom (so that viewers stayed tuned), but once I viewed the report, I was actually pretty excited.  (The first 2:15 or so will explain the technology before the talking heads start to butt.  Sorry about the introductory ad in the embedded video.  I guess they’re interested in marketing too!)

In a nutshell, Intel is looking at marketing technology that automates primary consumer research. Instead of a store clerk or grad student standing in the aisle and counting the number of customers stopping at a display, the signage around the product would have the capability of tracking consumers’ attention. As a marketer, an engineer, and a former retail display designer, I may have had a goofy grin on my face while initially watching this piece. You may be asking why such a technology has such great potential. To answer this, we go back to a topic that I discussed a few posts ago, targeting.  For a new product, companies want to know who their most appropriate targets will be (e.g., after a test market run).  For existing products, such data-mining is critical to ensure that the right segment is being targeted and tha right position is being obtained.  Otherwise, you’re wasting money on marketing and shiny new signs!

The concern raised by CNBC was how comfortable would people be with this technology tracking their activities? I personally find these concerns unfounded. These analytic techniques are anonymous, so my attention to a new facial cleanser would only be linked to a generic 25-34 year old, six foot tall male consumer. My grocery store already collects more in-depth and personal information from my frequent shopper savings card.

So, how are these two stories different? Both are about sharing data about a person, but one is very personal while one is anonymous. Perhaps the fact that we are so willing to use grocery store cards or keep our data saved in a profile at Amazon.com prove that Zuckerberg is onto something. We have grown, if not comfortable, at least complacent in how our information is shared. The key for consumers is their ability to control this sharing. Our social norms may be trending to more openness about our personal information, but it’s critical that such an evolution does not outpace the people that it affects. Peace of mind is still a lot more important to most people than a piece of online real estate.

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