Facebook’s Moment in the Mirror

Since the very beginning of social networks, the implied contract between the users and the social media company was about personal information. The users (all of us) trade our personal information with the social network in return for the benefits of the service — and for the first time we all benefit by having rich and instant contact with our own network of friends and family. This model stands in contrast with traditional advertising in one fundamental way. In traditional advertising, the advertiser positions a message that is consumed by the users themselves in the form of their time and attention. However, in a social media context, when we share our personal information, we are also allowing the social network to enable advertisers to target those within our personal networks with advertisements and messages.

Since the beginning of Facebook, the various ways that it collects and shares our personal information have been purposely obscure. Facebook’s privacy settings have, in my view, been made continually more granular to the point where they are nearly incomprehensible. And yet, so long as nobody was harmed, this all worked well for everyone. As we are seeing now, though, when misuse becomes public knowledge, the backlash against this has caused Facebook to come clean about how it manages personal information, as outlined in this recent article in The New York Times. The company is also rolling out a new “privacy hub” for users. There are many articles that explain all of this in more depth, and this one from Fast Company, “How Facebook Blew It,” is particularly insightful.

What is driving the news is that it now appears that bad actors violated the trust Facebook had with its users. Word got out that Facebook had knowingly enabled a private company to share its users’ personal data in an inappropriate (and possibly illegal) manner and didn’t tell us or do anything about it for years. Now we have the makings of a real scandal. To make matters worse, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, was silent on this issue for days, and Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer, continues to be silent. Something fundamental is broken, which is causing a lot of people to be less comfortable with being on Facebook — and the company’s stock price to gyrate. Congress just announced that Mark Zuckerberg will be on Capitol Hill to talk about what’s going on.

I don’t foresee Facebook’s demise, but the social contract between the company and its users has been damaged, and it may be very hard for that trust to be rebuilt. I don’t know about you, but I immediately followed the advice of a few articles I found about how to lock down my account, thus depriving Facebook of the very thing it most needs: my personal information. Without it, ads won’t be as targeted to me, and the quality of the service will be diminished. This spells trouble at the core of the Facebook business model.

Is there a lesson here for arts marketers? You bet. Be transparent about what information you are collecting, and use it precisely in the way you say you will. If your terms of service on your site are not updated or followed, update them now. Quick question: Is there someone on your staff whose job description includes “data security and privacy”? If not, now would be a good time to focus on that.

Nobody gets off scot-free here. Personal data is the new currency of the internet, and those who don’t protect it like the valuable asset it is may breach their patrons’ trust in a way that’s irreparable.

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