GUEST BLOG from Greg Rice, CEO Activate Media, long-time Silicon Valley investor and tech guru: FaceBook now has 600 million users, less than six months since it passed the 500 million mark, and membership growth shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. It seems almost unbelievable that in less than seven years we have witnessed its transformation from a protected walled garden for the best universities to the fastest growing social medium the world has ever known. But, explosive growth usually comes at a cost. In this case we have relatively inexperienced and trusting users sharing their lives on social networking systems that are evolving quickly and with unknown consequences. This has implications both for the users and the businesses that reach users through social networks.
For me, the real issues for users are anonymity and trust. Most people feel protected and insulated using social networks because they think they are posting content in their own environment and using the internet makes them anonymous. They seem to think that the only way their information will be found or used is if they tell someone about it and give them access to use it.
Well, you don’t have to look very hard to realise the folly of this thinking. Take the case of George Bronk who cleverly used details that he found on dozens of people’s profile to gain access to their e-mail accounts and then distributed the juiciest information and photos to all of the their friends. You may well ask, how was this possible? Shouldn’t social networks have more protection? Well, you can’t protect people from their own foolishness, like posting enough personal information on social media sites to allow a complete stranger to take over your identity.
But, are people really being stupid, or is it more of a question of ignorance? Given the era of online social networks has happened in less than a blink of the eye in the spectrum of time, I side with ignorance. Let’s look at some of the contributing factors:
- Young and inexperienced user base: Social networks’ growth has primarily been driven by young people, the first generation who have grown up with ubiquitous personal computers and internet. Many in this generation have not really had time to build a strong understanding of what is safe, and what is not, so they trust what seems like a good thing. Add in the fact that there is no guidance from their elders who typically have no clue about social networks or experience using them and you have the making of a perfect storm.
- Friend finding software: This is the secret sauce for viral growth of social networks. They use both simple and complex algorithms to match you with potential friends. As friend requests usually come from recommendations from the site, users seldom question the authority, which in fact can be spurious at best. Many users are flattered by friend requests and the common view is the more friends the better.
- Universal login: FaceBook’s extra special secret sauce. Wouldn’t be nice to just have one login for everything? Well, that’s what FaceBook thought, so it now provides this service third party sites. While sounding very convenient, the thing that most users do not know, is that Facebook provides user profile details to the third party sites as part of the deal, allowing these sites to also build personal profile on all people using this service.
With all of the above going on and not widely understood, it is only natural that smart people learn to game the system for their benefit. This may be as innocent as promoting products, but it can be taken much further as we have seen with the case of Mr. Bronk.
Social networks can bring entertainment, enjoyment and many other benefits, but as a user you need to have your eyes wide open when networking and be aware of the potential issues including:
- Posts are for life: Once data goes up on a network, the genie is out of the bottle and cannot be put back in. It is virtually impossible to remove posts, photos, and videos one they have been posted – the bottom line, think BEFORE you post because it will follow you for the rest of your life.
- Be selective in the details you post: Think about the information that identifies you, such as address, phone number, account details, clubs you belong to, even your full name. The more details you post, the more likely your personal security can be compromised.
- Be even more selective in the people you “friend”: You wouldn’t just invite anyone into your house; you need to be just as careful in selecting the people that you allow into your inner circle of friends. Do the due diligence up front to make sure people are who they say they are.
For businesses, the power of these networks in sharing information about products, services, fashions, ideas, culture and more is staggering. Opinions can be beamed around the world in a twitter; positive and negative images can be viewed in seconds on youtube; social crowds can congregate on Facebook – there’s never been a scarier time for brand managers or a more exciting one as the ability to reach self-segmenting communities allows much deeper interactions and mass customization. As these networks become increasingly mobile, positive and negative feedback spreads like wildfire and businesses and institutions need to respond. Smart ones keep their fingers on the pulse and leverage the influence of these networks, but many organizations are still finding their way in this new landscape. The key challenges for businesses can also be captured in the phrase: It’s for life! There is no going back. Key topics businesses will need to think about include:
- Building reputation and trust in the socially networked world: It’s not only users whose posts are for life – it’s equally true in terms of what you say about your business. As users become increasingly aware of the risks of networks, there may also be a backlash against people and organizations that do not respect privacy, so think not just about what those personal profiles can do for your marketing, but how you can keep those users secure – proactively.
- Integrating most effectively with social networks: Separating a “digital” strategy from an organization’s overall strategy (ditto for marketing) won’t work in the new reality – it has to be an integrated approach because that’s now consumers are living their lives.
- Managing employees’ use of social networks: There are plenty of should we-shouldn’t we debates going on as use of social networks in the office grows. There is no easy solution. The one key point is to ensure protection of sensitive data on the company, its customers, suppliers and broader partners – even without social networks this is hard as a Swiss private bank is just finding out courtesy of Wikileaks. With many employees potentially sharing on social networks it becomes a much bigger challenge, one which probably requires training.
The era of social networks is still in its infancy – users, businesses and the networks themselves are still exploring, figuring out what all this connectivity can do. The benefits are potentially massive, but so are the risks. So don’t forget, it’s for life! As you explore, use the same approaches you would in the jungle – don’t put out attractive morsels for predators, treat people you don’t know with caution and respect, protect your companions, try many paths but keep your compass (or GPS) on the destination.