Social networks open the doors to news ways of collaboration, connecting people back in time, but also propelling them into the future. They create new avenues for customer engagement and responsiveness, but also raise difficult privacy issues. We live in an era where simply riding on mass transit can lead to the exposure of your personal data, and when prospective employers pour over innocuous Facebook status updates looking for personality disorders. It starts to beg the question: How far out there do you want to be?
David Carr, on InformationWeek's TheBrainyard, explored Ford's very public use of new social network Google+ on Tuesday. Ford is the first business Google has allowed, as an experiment, on the new service. That experiment centers around connecting "with members of a generation that tends to be skeptical of traditional advertising."
Ford's Focus campaigns have all been wildly experimental all along, but this is a company with an employee whose title is "Social Media Director." Zero percent financing and balloons around Ford dealerships aren't going to cut it with the social generation. Ford has also been working with rival Toyota and Microsoft for quite a while on in-car digital media systems.
And that's fantastic. But I'm not here to extol the virtues of social networks.
The bigger problem is abuse, and for most people, there are absolutely no shades of grey: Social networks are being abused, and depending where you sit along the spectrum of values, it's either the people using the social networks who are the abusers, or the people making use of what's on the social networks.
For example, the aforementioned Google+, like Facebook, wants you to be transparent about who you are, although Facebook has seemed a bit more lenient about letting dogs, cats and multiple personalities create Facebook pages. Google? Not so much. The problem, as some people see it, is that this discourages open discourse and forces a transparency that makes many Google+ users uncomfortable, as InformationWeek's Tom Claburn said late Tuesday in his controversial piece outlining the five reasons Google+ name policy fails.
As some readers commented: So don't join Google+. Millions have, perhaps some unwittingly, or many in spite of privacy concerns. As reader "drmattnd" said in his response: Life is not a democracy. He said: "I can't figure out why heavy users of social networks think that this buys them some sort of vote or weigh-in on how the owners of said social network set their policies."
He goes on to say (poignantly, I might add): "Listen asshats. If you don't want your employer, police, neighbors, FBI, or whomever knowing about what you did last Saturday, DON'T PUT IT ON THE INTERNET!"
Fair enough. We do have a choice--about joining, about what we say. But many believe differently. Take a look at what reader "ajones320" says in response about the need for anonymous discourse in a democracy:
"No, I do NOT want everything I do under my Google account linked back to a public profile with my real name on it. What kind of idiot would voluntarily agree to this? Google is the latest in a string of fascists trying to turn the internet into a totalitarian police state, claiming it will reduce spam (it won't) or make online interaction more civil (it won't)."
He also has a message for Google: "The only way to manage this is true transparency and no anonymity. In a world of asynchronous threats, it is too dangerous for there not to be some way to identify you. We need a name service for people. Governments will demand it."
For good measure, he's also got a message for the Supreme Court: "Protections for anonymous speech are vital to democratic discourse. Allowing dissenters to shield their identities frees them to express critical, minority views...Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority...It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights, and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation...at the hand of an intolerant society."
Before you business types and CIOs dismiss all of this as the tribulations of consumers, remember that these are your employees, these are YOUR citizens too. In the midst of social network sharing, what constitutes over- sharing?
Is a seemingly mundane tweet about spending a day conducting due diligence a breach of confidentiality, or just a cry for sympathy? If a government employee asks his social circle what they think of Oracle's new HR module, is that a simple request, or is it sidestepping rules about bidding on government contracts? If a manager insists on "friending" an employee on Facebook, is that a friendly gesture, or an inappropriate demand?
I consider myself a pretty decent citizen. On the one hand, that fact makes me feel safe being on social networks, and even safe saying something risque or controversial from time to time; but I am also a representative of my employer, and I stop to think before I post. And I cringe that I have to stop to think. I cringe when I think about whether something I say could be viewed as libelous or material for a lawsuit. I see many Twitter profiles that say the person's tweets do not reflect the views of an employer . . . but while that might be true, it doesn't absolve the person's tweets.
And this is the heart of the dilemma for many. It doesn't matter that you're not joining in BBM-induced riot planning, or passing along confidential data to your "Circle," or tossing a grenade underneath your employer. Nobody really wants to be tracked, even if they have nothing to hide.
And still, Mr. Asshat [his word choice, not ours] is right: You do have a choice. But for many of us, exercising it is a big step back into the bunker.
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Fritz Nelson is the editorial director for InformationWeek and the Executive Producer of TechWebTV. Fritz writes about startups and established companies alike, but likes to exploit multiple forms of media into his writing.
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