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Monday
May172010

Using Facebook Should Not Be a Gamble

By Dennis D. McDonald, Ph.D.

I’m a consultant. Early on I realized a basic truth: “Where There Is Confusion There Are Consultants.”

The reason is simple. People seeking to reduce risk often seek advice from people who understand the problem.

Nowhere is this clearer than with today’s confusion surrounding Facebook and its shifting privacy and information aggregation policies.

I’m pretty sure that the recommendations I made in Managing Online Social Network Data Access is Like Living In a House Built on Sand for getting paid by Facebook for selective disclosure of personal information will never fly. After all, we live in an economy where “get the other guy to pay” is increasingly popular. But I do think that anyone in the public or private sector who wants to use Facebook needs to pay close attention to what experts like my friend Jeremiah Owyang say in articles like Matrix: How Facebook’s ‘Community Pages’ and Privacy Changes Impact Brands.

Jeremiah reviews the current status of Facebook and its implications for “brand management.” It’s not a pretty picture. Set aside for the moment questions of intellectual property ownership. A fundamental issue with Facebook is not just who controls official messaging about a product or service but also whether the concept of control is even relevant in a confused and changing landscape where authorship, content, and meaning are so dispersed.

Which gets me back to the issue of the role of consultants in helping managers keep up with changing rules and technology. How many people really have the time and understanding to keep up with all the ins and outs of Facebook’s terms of service and all the (sometimes well hidden) privacy controls Facebook offers?

This situation reminds me of the time I was thinking about using Google’s Gmail service. I made a serious attempt to understand Google’s terms and conditions. I concluded — rightly I now believe — that there was no guarantee that Google would not take advantage of my content in ways that I could neither anticipate nor control.

The same now appears to be true of Facebook. We’re seeing the implications played out in real time given the “social” nature of Facebook. And it does appear that we need experts like Jeremiah to help us to understand the implications of what is really going on.

But that does not remove the obligation we all have to understand as best we can what’s being done with our online identities and content. The fundamental issue concerns trust. Can you trust that the people you communicate with online are really who they say they are and that the information they communicate about a particular product or service is true and “official?”

This is increasingly important with Federal Government programs that use social media and social networking to communicate with the public. It was one thing when these media were used to broadcast information in a traditional publishing fashion about services that are delivered through well controlled channels. It’s different when agencies engage with citizens via social media in ways that influence how public services are actually delivered. Distinctions concerning what’s “official” can sometimes have significant financial, health, and safety implications.

I’m not arguing that social media shouldn’t be used in connection with public services; that genie left the bottle long ago. But I do believe that, as is becoming obvious with popular services such as Facebook, government agencies need to very carefully consider not only how they monitor the use of social media but also how they strategise about and manage their use of social media in ways that reflect official policies and obligations and protect the interests of the people they serve.

Copyright (c) 2010 by Dennis D. McDonald. Dennis’ contact information is here.

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