Does social media data collection go too far?

At a recent ODC brown bag, we decided to talk through the practical applications of social media analytics: what we know, what we don’t know, and how that informs the insights we bring to our clients.

What started as a standard analytics talk quickly evolved into a discussion about privacy. What’s okay for brands to know? What should be off the table? For some, this discussion was kind of horrifying. Everyone knows that social media collects data, but the extent to which it does so surprised several of us.

The information we are able to mine from social media and bring to our clients is extraordinary. There are the big things (like the likelihood you are about to have a kid or get married based on your search history) and the little ones (whether you like to shop online or prefer brick and mortar). Native social media dashboards make me wonder if I know more about a target audience then they know about themselves.

Take a mainstream crime show like Law and Order. How does Ice-T learn about his suspects? He looks through their trash. In a lot of ways, that’s social analytics. It’s the collection of a million little things you never even think about like searches, public comments, and the tech you have in your pocket that start as data points and rapidly accumulate to reveal who you truly are.

This kind of data collection allows digital strategists to target consumers so specifically that the average consumer should never see an ad they don’t like. Social media then becomes something like an online dating service. A brand is made up of a unique set of traits in much the same way a person is. Social media is just the platform by which you discover the brands you’re likely to fall in love with. Like when that handbag you thought you’d only been dreaming about appears in a sponsored ad perfectly tailored to your lifestyle and aesthetic.

Then again, there is a dark side. For the most part, the worst thing online data collection can do is subscribe you to a crappy email list. But that isn’t always the case. In 2012, Facebook conducted a behavioral study using newsfeeds. It served a newsfeed of positive news to one user group, and a newsfeed full of gloom and doom to another user group. They wanted to see how this would affect a user’s overall online behavior. Critics took the published study to task for violating the National Research Act by risking potential emotional distress in users who had no idea they were being studied. Not only that, but Facebook was in hot water again after a few of their contractors revealed that they’d been asked to intentionally bury and prevent certain topics from trending on newsfeeds.

Now it becomes a question of ethics. When you have a platform like Facebook that determines—for better or worse—the topics that billions of people are talking about on any particular day, how do we determine the line between moderating and controlling public thought?

Answering that is a subject for another blog post. But next time you boot up Instagram, remember: Big Brother your friendly social media analyst is watching!

Genevieve is a copywriter and creative strategist, bringing her expertise in social media to the One Design team. Genevieve's focus is on creating an online experience that engages brand communities in authentic and unique ways.

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