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Google Study: Social Media Enhances Privacy

Sharing can shape your reputation, thereby building trust and privacy, Google research says. "Clean coal," meet "privacy-aware sharing." Let the oxymoron wars begin.
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Yet, Staddon counters that social media "also leads to huge privacy advantages by facilitating perception, both in terms of understanding of one's online self, particularly as driven by the inputs of others, and self-representation."

Are the benefits of social media huge enough to outweigh the chance of, say, losing custody of one's kids due to some ill-considered Facebook post? The paper avoids making that calculation. It argues that social media can enhance reputation and trust, but the studies cited "offer no judgment on whether social media is good for privacy in any absolute sense."

It would be rather useful to know whether social media is good for privacy in an absolute sense. Alas, the study's main point is that "it is possible to design social media systems that are engaging and supportive of privacy and trust."

For Google, that's good news. It just happens to have a social network. Imagine the problems the company would face were it not possible to design social media systems that are engaging and supportive of privacy and trust.

Still, the data cited to support the linkage between social media and privacy is underwhelming. One of the studies mentioned in the paper deals with vanity searches--searching for one's own name--and concludes that "vanity searches are often closely associated with reputation concern." That's not exactly surprising, but the paper characterizes this as a privacy need. Another way to put it might be that vanity searches expose privacy failures, or publicity.

The second study mentioned in the paper explores how social annotations--Facebook Likes and Google +1s and article popularity ratings--next to news articles affect reader engagement. Four groups with an average of about 95 people in them were asked separately about their interest in sharing news articles, both with and without social annotations. With interest rated on a scale of 1 (least interested in sharing) to 5 (most interested in sharing), the average for articles with Facebook annotations was 2.39. For articles without any annotations, the average was 2.32. And for articles annotated with a popularity ranking, the average was 2.35.

So adding a 'Like' button provides 0.07 points (on average) more interest in sharing than not having a Like button. From this, we get, "social annotations in search support privacy by enabling better self-representation and thus more privacy-aware sharing."

Certainly, social media conveys some benefits. It's a stretch to say that privacy is among them.

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