This week Twitter was rife with people calling out LinkedIn for changing its privacy settings so it could use information about you in third-party advertising.
I saw two or three people in my network tweeting about this supposedly underhand behaviour, and immediately logged onto LinkedIn to change my privacy settings. After all, you trust people in your network, don’t you? Worryingly, however, this also changed my perceptions of LinkedIn – and not in a good way.
Learning from experience
Why does this keep happening? Facebook has come under fire again and again for making changes to its privacy settings, even reaching the desks of US regulator the Federal Trade Commission in 2009 thanks to a complaint from a consumer rights group.
Partly, this is unavoidable. Social networks are young companies and services and clearly they need to make changes to their business and service models as they go. A good example is the launch of the activity stream announced by Twitter this week. This updates the way Twitter serves you information about who’s retweeting, favouriting and following you, and so far, everyone seems happy enough about it.
But some changes – particularly those relating to privacy – don’t go down as well. In the main, these public outcries are driven by a conflict between the urgency with which social networks run their businesses, and the amount of time it takes to communicate effectively to hundreds of millions of geographically dispersed users, particularly on sensitive subjects.
Governments have learned this lesson well over centuries, and often take decades to persuade countries to consider, then adopt, controversial policies. Of course, with fierce competition between social networks, they don’t have decades or even years to push through change. They see the world in terms of weeks and months.
The value of trust for social networks
So far, the big social networks seem to be taking the view that, so long as they don’t lose members in droves, they can probably get away with pushing through changes like this. However, with public trust at such a premium after years of relentless focus on banking, politicians’ expenses and media malpractice, I’d argue that social networks could benefit from being seen as trustworthy sources of information.
And with that in mind, perhaps making a bit more effort to explain the changes they plan to make, and being seen to listen to users feelings before they implement changes, might not be such a bad idea.