Social Media and Your (Lack of) Privacy

The year is 2010. The internet has passed the infant stage and has grown into a young adult that still hasn’t quite gotten the “rules” down yet. Much of internet law is still in its infancy, in part because the legal system hasn’t been able to keep up with the rapid changes in technology. Words like “piracy,” “identity theft” and “copyright” are just three examples of that, but there are several more. In its basic form, the internet is like a giant toolbox that offers you an array of tools to help you quickly deliver content. Your content, which in its basic form is really different types of data, can be shared through a number of tools like forums, blogs, email, etc. Several of these tools are on a public platform that allows people to not only interact with each other, but to listen in to other people’s conversations as well: this is where social media comes into play.

Although there are hundreds of social media websites out there, many of which can be found through, there are really a handful that stand out for authors. They are: LiveJournal, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube! and MySpace. Each of these sites allows people to engage in different ways: you can microblog, blog or comment on other people’s blogs in your network, have conversations, share links or stories and play games, watch videos, or do all of the above. Each one of these sites has a Terms of Service (ToS) that spells out what your rights are as someone who might want to participate in their free network. I know several of you might have a blog located on a WordPress or BlogSpot domain. When was the last time you checked your Terms of Service to see who owns your own content? You might be surprised what the ToS states. In many cases, the content that you provide is not, technically, owned by you. For a writer, the question of who has access to your private data or your content can be detrimental. Oddly enough, I’ve seen how many “tools” will proclaim that they won’t enforce their ToS. That is, not until something happens and you wind up encountering legal trouble.

In more cases than I care to admit, your privacy (or your content) is the price you pay for using a free service. This is often addressed within the ToS or within a separate document called a “Privacy Policy” that spells out what a site does with your data. Of course, most businesses have a privacy policy that addresses whether your data is public or anonymous and what they do with it. Many social media networks are businesses to some degree, but sometimes we overlook that fact because they are free (and fun) to use. If the networks are not technically structured as a business, they are often experimental and attractive platforms in order to encourage people to sign up for them. Remember, a social media network is valuable because of the people that use it and not necessarily because of its technology.

If you think about it, each social media platform is very much like a playground at a school yard. When you go to play at Facebook by creating a “page,” for example, you need to abide by their rules or you can get kicked out. Recently, Facebook encountered several problems with updates to their new privacy settings earlier this Spring; the conversations have literally run amok. In response, Facebook posted an update that attempts to be a bit clearer about what you can do with your settings.(1) The end result is that everyone — from the New York Times to Time Magazine — is now talking about privacy.

Regardless of what you think about sites like Facebook and their practices, these “free” websites need to monetize their efforts in order to remain free for you to use. The latest stats claim that Facebook has over 400 million users worldwide (2). Twitter’s user stats, on the other hand, may be closer to approximately 100 million by comparison, but no one knows for certain (3). Both social media platforms have offices with employees; both have business models that employ different techniques in order for these platforms to stay afloat. Behind the scenes, millions of dollars could be pumped into a “free” service through venture capital, online advertising, or other forms of revenue-generation.

No doubt, many — if not all — of the social media business models that are out there include the collection of your data or content. Anonymous data allows a website to personalize your experience and make every attempt to provide you with relevant choices. It also allows web designers to understand how you interact with a particular page so that they can improve their design efforts as well. In fact, if you’ve ever used Google Analytics you’ve probably benefited from the collection of anonymous data by viewing how different people interact with your website. “Public” data, as defined by data that is attached to your name or persona, is another story entirely. Again, this should be spelled out in a privacy policy for the site that you have provided your data to.

The challenge with using and sharing your data through social media, whether it be anonymous or not, comes down to a few, key issues. First, many social media platforms were not designed for sophisticated usage; they have been built to allow people to easily share content with other people. Due to the immense popularity of social media platforms, these tools have been molded to fit different uses for a variety of segments within a social structure. For example, Twitter now has the ability for you to “verify” your account. This is extremely important for celebrities that may have top-of-mind recognition who need to protect their identity. I should point out that I could probably name several authors that could very well be celebrities, and I’m sure this is the case with you as well. For another example, online marketers and advertisers have embraced the social media platforms because that’s where they are the most likely to find their customers. This is not unlike authors and publishers who wish to connect with their readers. The U.S., which has a high concentration of internet marketing usage in social media, is quite possibly the leader in that regard.

Other countries utilize social media to discuss politics and interact with the world in ways that they couldn’t before, but based on the data that I’ve seen the primary goal isn’t to shill that proverbial book or sell a t-shirt. Advertising on a social network can be a “win win” for everyone involved, provided the customer (or reader) has the clear option not to engage or click through on a particular link. As a result, the social media platform may be able to generate some revenue, the advertiser reaches their desired market, and the customer learns about new developments or offers for something that they’re interested in. However, online advertising can also create challenges, because now the accessibility of a business or an individual can create a sub-set of problems. Several authors I’ve talked to have mentioned the difficulties they’ve encountered with being too accessible. Where your privacy is concerned the issues of identity theft, plagiarism and “cyber” stalking come into play.

Second, I mentioned earlier that the law has not had a chance to catch up to internet technology. That is changing. Of course, you’re probably familiar with the Google Book Settlement, but there are quite a few more cases that are in the works (4). For starters, there have been several cases where people have been sued for libel and defamation for publicly voicing an opinion, your opened e-mails on a site like Yahoo! may be accessible by the court system, and there is a tremendous political push-back occurring against the FCC, who may be enforcing Network Neutrality (5)(6)(7). The game-changer, here, could very well be network neutrality and what it might mean for both businesses and individuals in the U.S. should the issue be decided in favor of the internet service providers (ISPs).

Third, and perhaps most importantly, several social media websites don’t offer you the ability to block out complete strangers from learning everything about you without drastically changing your experience with their platform. Sure, you can “block” a user from engaging, but that wouldn’t necessarily stop someone from reading your content or finding other ways to connect with you. These websites are based on your ability to share with others openly by either establishing your own network or randomly picking up other people through your public accessibility.

Additionally, social media platforms are typically not engineered for people who need to use one of these “tools” for more than one reason. LiveJournal, in my mind, can be an exception to that rule with its ability to create smaller groups of people. Many of us have both professional and personal reasons for offering different types of content to our friends and followers. For example, besides being an author — how many of you have a full-time job? How many of you are parents or caregivers? As time goes on, it’s becoming next to impossible to separate “you” as a person from “you” as an author or employee. Often, we need to engage where we’ll get the most visibility, because that’s where our readers or other professionals might be. Only, I’m not sure any of us knows what the “price” of that visibility truly is until we encounter a high cost.

Of course, almost anyone you’d talk to might say: if you don’t want everyone in the world to see what you’re posting, then simply don’t post it. Certainly, that is one response, but that’s also a huge challenge considering the popularity of these sites and the benefits a “free” tool can offer you as an author. Additionally, having somewhat of an online presence is becoming a necessity for job seekers, too. I can’t tell you how many human resource professionals, agents and other people I’ve talked to research people online after they’ve met them. Sadly, as technology continues to evolve at an exponential rate, older individuals find it almost impossible to keep up, which puts them at a higher risk of having their privacy invaded. Many of these issues are extremely complex, in part because every ToS or Privacy Policy may be different from the next.

What is the solution? Well, I propose another course of action: engage carefully, but get involved and stay on top of these changes with sites like Make a list of what websites you’re using and review their terms of service and privacy policy agreements. Take the time to find out what happens when you delete your content or your profile on one of these sites.

Not only is privacy crucial to how you interact with your readers and your loved ones online, it’s also an important part of your digital footprint. With the way that the laws are now, what you say today could be used against you at some point in the future. That, in and of itself, should scare you. As authors, we may be writers — but we are not machines nor are we psychics. We make mistakes and, over time, our opinions might change. Right now, the internet isn’t prepared to handle those nuances because published content, in many cases, could be permanent.

The internet landscape may be changing rapidly, but the law is not blind. Once the courts start to catch up, the wild, wild west days of “free” sites like the social media platforms we all enjoy may be over. The question is: are you ready for it? If not, I suggest that you take the time to research where you are putting your stories and thoughts online. Then, you will come to your own conclusions about the tools you are using and how valuable your privacy is to you.