Social Media Research And Privacy: Where Do You Stand?

by Tom Webster |

Last week I was part of a neat experiment with a group of about 30 or so forward-thinking market researchers to come up with the five “hot” and five “not-so-hot” trends that will affect our industry over the next few years. The goal was for all of us to publish our posts at roughly the same time (I say “roughly,” because I was late :) ) and see where we all agreed and disagreed. Here were mine, in case you are interested. Fellow market researcher Tom Anderson (who organized the event) produced these word clouds to represent the hot and not-hot posts; if you can tell the difference between them, you’re a frickin’ genius.

One of the common themes from all of these posts was the issue of privacy, especially as it relates to social media research. Some felt it was a dead issue: we have no illusions of privacy – Facebook gives us umpteen privacy settings and we just don’t care. Others feel it will be a hot issue – that there is still another shoe yet to drop, in other words. Certainly, as a researcher, I feel like I have a pretty good moral compass about this sort of thing, and my assumption is that my industry peers also have no desire to “cross the line.” That line, however, turns out to be a slippery sucker. Surely accessing a private message board community that discusses mental health issues should be sacrosanct, yet a company like Nielsen managed to cross exactly that line last fall.

Privacy preferred - - 200314

When we complain about a product or service on Twitter, implicitly we are hoping that our pleas will be monitored and responded to. Indeed, by bringing our complaints to the social web, we may be hoping for more – not only that our specific problem will be solved, but that others will benefit, too. Yes, there is probably an element of self-aggrandizement/Klout-fishing that keeps this from being a purely altruistic gesture, but in any case, we voice our displeasure in order to bring about some effect, for ourselves or others, and that model doesn’t work unless companies are listening, and you know that they are listening.

A few months ago I gave a talk at the annual CASRO convention to a group of survey researchers who are grappling with these same issues. In my talk, I used myself as something of a guinea pig, leading my audience down the rabbit hole from an innocent update I posted to Twitter all the way down to the street where I live, a picture of my house, and even how much money I make (roughly), all using publicly-available data and free web services. A username from one site unlocks a profile on another, and a chain of information is revealed about you that is far longer than you think.

From a marketer’s perspective, this information is gold, of course. When you complain about a product, a skilled social media researcher can segment and profile you: are you a parent of young children? An empty-nester? Unemployed? Plop – in you go into the appropriate bucket. Many of you, the readers of Social Media Explorer, are marketers. This information is beneficial to you – but is there a line you won’t cross? At what point do you say, you know – I don’t want to know this. Or do you? One thing is for sure – if you ask for it, social media researchers somewhere will provide it. What do you think? Is there a line? How do you recognize it? Your comments and spirited debate are welcome.

About the Author

Tom Webster

Tom Webster is Vice President of Strategy for Edison Research, sole provider of U.S. National Election exit polling data for all major news networks. Webster has 20 years of experience in market and opinion research, with a particular emphasis on consumer behavior and the adoption of new media and technology. He is the principal author of a number of widely-cited research studies, including Twitter Usage In America, The Social Habit, and The Podcast Consumer Revealed, and is co-author of the Edison Research/Arbitron Internet and Multimedia Research Series, now in its 18th iteration. Reach him on Twitter at Webby2001, or on his blog at BrandSavant.