Posted by Tom Grant on March 11, 2010
In an earlier post, I argued that product managers in social media companies need to start sharpening their understanding of privacy and security issues. Here's another reason why:
While there may be revenue-related reasons for geolocation, such helping local vendors fire advertising at you with laser-like precision, that's not the only reason why some social media vendors err on the side of exposing information about you. Bad product design is another part of the story, whether it's designing features for a hackneyed stereotype of twenty-somethings, or not thinking through the use cases or user stories very carefully. Sure, there's a marketing argument for making the games I play visible as part of my XBox gamertag, but really, does it help all that much to show how much I've played, or what achievements I've unlocked. People may be playing your game, but they might not be playing it that much. The time when I last played a game is another piece of information I may not want people to know, if I don't want them to know when I'm at home, or when I was playing Halo instead of cleaning out the rain gutters.
I'm choosing a video game-related example because it points directly to the scenario that might start the backlash against these casual assumptions about social media privacy and security. Teenage stalker turns violent. Children accidentally revealing details about their family's location, buying habits, or whatever, leading to bad repercussions for the parents, such as identity theft. Information about a child's interactions with teachers or other adults outside the home that give the wrong impression of what's happening. Even worse would be the the right impression in ways that raise questions about who should have noticed the signs of inappropriate or abusive behavior.
Bruce Schneier worries that we'll lose our privacy to social media unless we fight for it. I'm a little more sanguine, because I think the probability of a "Think of the children!" moment is pretty high. Many in the mainstream press already have a dim view of bloggers. Their brief infatuation with Twitter and other social media of newer vintage might quickly take a dark turn.
I don't envy the PM who has to raise this issue with their company's version of Mark Zuckerberg. You'll sound like a Chicken Little, worrying over something that hasn't happened yet. The unfortunate thing is, the fixes are likely to be as simple as, "Insert a privacy wizard into the registration process." For a variety of reasons, some unnecessary, that's not happening in a lot of cases.