Posted by: bbannan | March 18, 2009

Social media, usability and privacy – Matthew W.

There is no doubt that social media websites like facebook, myspace and linkedin are tremendous resources for marketers, developers and instructional designers who are trying to discover more about their users. Take my facebook page for instance, on it (and like most other users on this site), I have posted personal details about what I like, where I work, what my hobbies are and who my friends are. Privacy, in the world of social media, simply does not exist and for those working on usability testing, social media is a gold mine of rich data.

Abbey Klaassen of Advertising Age magazine explains how many usability developers/designers are now looking at the social media space as a customer relationship management (CRM) tool.

Consider the example Klaassen uses about a successful grassroots fan page on facebook for fans of Nikon brand cameras remembering the importance of customer support and log files. This large community is a place for Nikon owners to discuss, chat, post pictures, videos of all things Nikon (all of this, I might add was not even created by Nikon). So not only is Nikon able to learn about how their customers use their product, they can also tap into the other bits of helpful information from the rest of the users profile page (location, age, sex, career etc). What is even more helpful is that companies are now able to use the inherent metrics features in sites like facebook and myspace to learn everything they’d ever need to know about their users. We are now able to learn the number of visits, time spent, and even enthusiasm based on how much a user posts.

What is clear is that social media is not going away, and with that means that CRM is sticking around too. In fact, Gartner announced that worldwide customer relationship management grew 23% in 2007 totaling 8.1 billion dollars. No doubt, CRM vendors are closely watching social media sites develop as noted by Sharon Mertz, research director at Gartner; “Looking forward, social networking, collaborative technologies and social software are producing a major impact on the CRM market. Enterprises face increasing challenges to determine how best to harness these trends and technologies for growth, both internally and in their customer service strategies.”

This is tremendous news for usability testing and marketing, but what does it mean to the user and the user’s privacy? It all comes back to that harmless word that many people may not understand: cookies. In his book titled “The Cult of the Amateur”, Andrew Keen suggests that as these sites become more and more popular, the user loses more and more privacy. Every time you perform a search on google (and lets face it, we all do), Google learns a little bit more about you. How? Through small bits of data called cookies that establish unique information about a users activity on web sites. Google Yahoo and AOL, who have no legal responsibility to purge old data, keep recor”ds of what subjects we search, what products we buy, what sites we surf.” Keen predicts that not too far away, we may simply do a search of “What was Joe Smith doing at 1:30 on Saturday” and get an accurate prediction.

Abbey Klaassen, Advertising Age Magazine (only available through lexis nexus login)
Andrew Keen, The Cult of the Amateur:
Nikon Fan Page group on Facebook:



  1. Very good information. Thanks for sharing! Data mining of this data is really beneficial for the research we are using… and by the way is free! It’s available 24/7 and can be easily gather. My only question is the “validity” of this data… People post whatever they want and there is not way to know if the information is true or false. But this is also something that happens in face-to-face surveys… Then, we just need to find the confidence interval to know how valid that data is…

  2. OK, let’s talk about data mining via cookies, accepted voluntarily. Look at the Obama grasroots online campaign.

    Imagine an Excel file 2 miles wide. Then take the first users to hit the Obama websites about two years ago today. Send me more information, put me on a newsletter list, give me a campaign sign or button.

    Sure, says Obama Digital, and thus began a 2-year online releationship. Those online users established preferences and self-defined themselves as Obama Digitial asked them more and more questions through follow up targeted e-mail campaigns and surveys.

    Obama Digital (my term) was able to track their user paths through online properties, contributions, online attendance at virtual rallies and on-site meetings.

    These online users gave away more privacy than they can now in volunteering for their cause. I wonder how these users will take advantage of continuing to self-identify, and perhaps distance themseleves from, the new online opportunities as they appear on contact lists for local and state elections, causes (abortion, gun control) and legislation.

    I accept losing my privacy as soon as I type, “tsakell,” but how willing is the average use? That’s a study I’d like to conduct.

    tom sakell /

  3. This is a very interesting discussion and it gets to the heart of why I can’t get on the social networking sites bandwagon. I think that if we asked the average user are they willing to to sacrifice some of the privacy many would answer no. However, we all do when we view the benefit of the information on the website more important at that moment than allowing a brief insight into our user information or preferences. That all leads to the value or user research so that websites can offer information or services that users value enough to sacrifice some of their personal information in order to access them.

  4. Good thoughts! Alas, if only there was a facebook fan site for our Agora Financial site! (Though Group 2 might have one). It might have made our user research a bit simpler. 😉

    Personally, I feel the privacy issues on social networking sites are more of a concern for children (those under 12, or even up to 18).
    These persons are not fully capable of understanding the consequences of sacrificing their privacy, and thus, they are unable to offer informed consent. (However, I am sure the marketing teams for toy makers do not mind.) Meanwhile, adults are capable of making an informed choice about revealing personal information online. That does not mean adults do not still have an expectation of privacy, but it’s more limited. Most of the information available online is fairly easy to get– and these adults do not feel their privacy is infiltrated by offering it. Truthfully, many adults join these sites to promote their personal visibility – to market themselves to the world, as people or professionals. Twitter survives purely on their thoughts and insights – a sort of online shouting that “I am here”.

    Unfortunately, many adults fail to understand how accessible their information is or how it may be used without their knowledge. For instance, I am always fairly amazed by how many people place their telephone number on facebook, yet are unselective about their ‘friends’. I am also amazed by the number of social engineering scams utilize social networking information to ‘borrow’ money from the victim’s friends. Even the government has begun to tap into the power of social networking to provide ready human intelligence or track recruiting trends. Facebook has responded to this threat by limiting information available to persons outside of the user’s ‘network;’ however, no block on personally identifiable information is foolproof.

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