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Social networking, ignorance, and apathy

Backspin By , Network World
December 08, 2011 12:46 PM ET

Network World - There's an old joke: What's the difference between ignorance and apathy? Answer: I don't know and I don't care.

When it comes to privacy in social networking I see both ignorance and apathy displayed by the users and the actual services that drive them, whether they're pure social networks like Facebook or social networks for business, like Etsy.

The problem of trusting social networking services with your personal data has been much discussed over the last couple of years and the issues are straightforward: They (the social networking services) want you (the consumer) to tell them everything about yourself, including who your friends are, where you go, and what you do, and provide pictures and videos of yourself and your friends ... oh, and could you invite all your friends so we know your connections and label those faces for us? Honest, we promise we won't do anything you wouldn't like with all of the data; honest!

Too much social media networking: Paranoia of Big Brother surveillance may destroy ya

What the social network services don't have is much risk of users suing them or defecting. To start with, users have to enter into agreements with the services and those agreements make it very hard for the users to take the services to court.

Moreover, and far more importantly, the consequence should you, the user, feel the need to leave a social network, is an onerous one: You will have to abandon your friends! You'll have to make a choice between leaving your friends or accept being held hostage by the prospect of losing your connections.

The result is most users will overlook whatever bad faith a social network has indulged in and hang on, eventually exhibiting the social networking equivalent of Stockholm Syndrome, "an apparently paradoxical psychological phenomenon wherein hostages express empathy and have positive feelings towards their captors, sometimes to the point of defending them."

This is exactly what happens because people who become annoyed over privacy issues in social networks will usually not do much about it. They will continue to engage with their friends on the network and focus on their experiences with people not their problems with the service ... social engagement always seems vastly more important than any service issues.

So, despite the fact that we know that social networking services have had major privacy failures, most users either believe, ignorantly, in the services' abilities to maintain their privacy or, apathetically, they don't care or can't be bothered and thereby ignore the failures.

For example, in October 2010, The Wall Street Journal discovered that Facebook was allowing many Facebook applications to discover and use personally identifying information.

This information resulted in data such as people's names and their friends' names being used by various advertising companies despite many of the affected users having set their privacy settings to the most restrictive level.

Although the data was actually collected by the third-party applications, the failure to maintain user privacy was strictly Facebook's fault as they didn't apparently monitor how data was being used by the third parties. That was bad enough, but the fact that Facebook didn't engineer mechanisms into its systems to detect or prevent the problem was bad engineering at best (ignorance) and negligence at worst (apathy).

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