As social networks gather more data, how will users react?
A report from a committee of the UK parliament has said that social networks sites such as Facebook and Twitter should be more transparent about what data they collect and how this is used. The report claims that a reasonable person could not be expected to understand how the sites use their data, and pointed to reports earlier this year of an experiment where Facebook had manipulated what appears in newsfeeds to measure the impact on users. Overall the MPs ask for social networks to get informed consent from their users before they capitalise on the data they share.
What kind of data is collected
Social networks capture a range of data on the people who set up accounts and use the service. This falls into three main categories:
- Data the user gives them directly – your name, location, age, things you discuss, photos you post. All of these provide useful data for sites to understand more about you and your interests. That helps them to show you more relevant updates, but also to target you for advertising or to provide (and maybe even sell) profiles of groups of users based on their behaviours and what they share
- Data others give about you – when people tag you in a photo, or say you are with them at an event, this adds to the data that these sites have and the picture they are able to build of you and your interests.
- Other data they monitor – sites and apps also gather other data. Recently, Twitter has had to explain how it gathers data on the other apps you have downloaded on your mobile phone in order to better target ads at you.
The question of value
For many this data is seen as the exchange users have to make in order to use the services. Facebook, for example, provide users with a free platform for communicating and engaging with their friends; rather than asking for money in payment they monetise the data that they gather on users.
This market-exchange makes sense. But the challenge is that for many users it will not be clear that this is what is happening. As they share an update or Like a brand they will not necessarily be thinking that what they are doing is adding to the understanding of them (and similar people) in order to help the network sell more ads. And this is what the UK parliamentary report is trying to deal with – getting informed consent when people ‘accepts’ Terms and Conditions to make sure they are clear what they are committing to.
Changes in our attitudes to our own data
But as it becomes clearer what our data is being used for, we are already seeing some shifts in behvaiour from users. From being more selective about what they share or who they connect with, to increasing their privacy settings on the site or on their phone. As people become more exposed to the kind of data they share and what can be done with it they will increasingly find ways to take back control of how it can be used.
And this poses real challenges for social networks and other sites that rely on this data. Consumers need to understand the data that is captured and how it is used in a way that benefits them. Otherwise there’s a real risk that they will increasingly cut off access from this data to the social networks and to brands that want to interact with them.