Social media to face a backlash?

Facebook and Twitter need to be more transparent, according to social media researcher

Social media websites could face a backlash if they don’t become more transparent about how they use data collected on users, according to Dutch social media researcher, Professor José van Dijck.

She told Computerworld Australia social media sites like Facebook have a goldmine of data it has collected from its users -- and it intends to collect more.

“Information quants, the mathematicians who are the wizards of information and data mining ... are becoming more important in defining how this information is used to define our social lives,” she said.

“These companies are finding increasingly sophisticated ways to interfere in the social activities of our lives. They have become very savvy at predicting our habits.”

Being able to predict users’ habits means they are also able to send subtle messages about products they could or should be using, according to van Dijck, a visiting professor at the University of Technology Sydney. This is resulting in social media sites customising the users’ social experience on a mass level.

“What may well happen is these mechanisms become too insidious in people’s lives [and] there may well be a backlash. If people become really fed up with the way in which these companies intrude upon their privacy and their everyday activities, they may well experience a backlash from their customers,” she said.

“So I think that’s a very much a tightrope that companies are walking right now.”

With a total of 82 per cent of the world’s population on social media in 2011, according to van Dijck, social media companies have a potential treasure trove of personal information of all its users. She calls this ready supply of information the commercialisation of everyday life.

Van Dijck said companies such as Facebook – one of the main culprits – are beginning to sell information to third parties and are also using it for their own business strategies for “predictive analytics”.

“I think the average person has no clue as to who controls the data and what can be done with it. I think only a very small percentage of people actually use or read the terms of use or the end user licence agreements that they automatically sign when they become a member of a platform,” she said.

“Besides that, even if you have read it, it may change the next day and these terms are adjusted virtually every week ... That’s something that I would like to see more awareness of – that people really require [companies] to be open about what is being done to their data.”

While van Dijck said prompting companies to be more open about information sharing is problematic, companies like Facebook and its IPO has made the company more transparent about third party partnerships and how it is selling and sharing data.

“They’re using data for advertisements right now, but there’s other tactics or strategies that they use,” van Dijck said.

Influential users on Facebook and Twitter, such as politicians and celebrities, are also using social media to set the agenda and trends, rather than just following it, and to manipulate users. Van Dijck calls this “trend setting” instead of mining trends or signally trends.

“I have friends who say ‘let’s make this tweet trending’ and that is a symbolic way of saying you can set the trend using tweets. Tweets are very [effective] mechanisms that may help promote certain ideas or certain products,” van Dijck said.

How the control over information will play out is still unclear. Social media sites appear to have the upper hand at the moment, with most outlets prompting users to sign away their rights to control information on the platform, something which Djick said is worrying.

She said companies should be more open and trustworthy about their business models and how they are using information. However, Dijck said users can also become savvier by asking questions, looking at the terms of use and requiring companies to disclose how they are sharing information with third party partners.

However, she said that while social media platforms do not require users to hand over their credit card details, there’s no such thing as free lunch.

“So what you really need to ask yourself is ‘How do I pay for it? In what form? How am I paying? And in what currency?’ The information you give is your currency and this is something that companies need to be more open about,” she said.

Follow Stephanie McDonald on Twitter: @steph_idg

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU

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