Last week LinkedIn caused a backlash and lost a lot of good will – including mine – by opting everyone into their social advertising program. Before that there was (and still is) a LOT of discussion – and disagreement – about Google+ strict real name policy and the words facebook and privacy can almost be used as antonyms…
But why users react so strongly to use of their identity, relationship and data by these networks, after all most people, I presume, understand that companies like Google, FB, LinkedIn etc. are for profit firms with the goal to make money, and that is a the core of most of their policies (and not that anything is wrong with that!).
As someone once said “if you are not paying them, you are not their customer, you are their product”, and, as harsh as it sounds, they do (and have to) sell their product one way or another.
I am not claiming that one unified theory explains the users’ strong reactions to them - and possible solution - but Dan Airely in “Predictable irrationality” may come close. If you have not read “Predictable irrationality” you should. It is an easy read and a very enlightening book – not to mention entertaining – by behavioral economist Dan Airely.
Among many interesting observations he makes is the notion of “Market and Social Norms”. It is basically a very simple and common sense notion: All of us live in two worlds simultaneously, a social world where exchanges of good and services are regulated by social norms, the need for being part of a community and a delayed- reciprocity, and a market world where exchange of goods and services are regulated by a cold, sharp edge rules of the market, prices, interest rates, cost and benefits. Life is good as long as these world are kept separated (as George Costonza famously pronounced) – but when you mix the two the real trouble starts and “it blows up”.
Airely gives a few examples: You go to your mother-in-law for thanksgiving and offer to pay her a large sum for the sumptuous spread she put on the table for you … and next year you’d be sitting in front your TV with a frozen dinner. Or more vividly, the example of a guy who takes out a girl to three or four expensive dates and finally brings up the subject of money and how much the romance is costing him! …and of course suffers the dire consequences. Next time he will sure remember Woody Allen’s word of wisdom: “The most expensive sex is a free one”.
The “Social Networking” sites and identity seems to be a classic example of crossing social and market norms. The use of social networking sites is free and there is no other signal that the relationship between user and network operator is a market or commercial relationship. Users may feel/perceive that they are dealing with a “host” one that allows them to interact with their friends, family and catch up on “social” stuff …you know, everyday life that is so outside the “market norms”. I don’t have data but I feel users do understand that these sites have to make money, and are OK with some ad poping up from time to time or being displayed alongside their content, but I doubt that most people understand how those ads relates to their data (posts, searches, conversations etc.) . Every now and then someone (say WSJ or some tech blog) reminds them of how their data is being shared with others – or why the need to “report” accurate names – and that is the moment where “worlds collide”.
Maybe (and only maybe), if an identity provider (or social network) actually started an informed conversation with its users about the data sharing and gave them meaningful control, can it bring the relationship to the “market world”. In that world users are not the network “product”, but informed partners. For example, if an identity provider (or network operator) makes it clear to me that they can get me a good deal on a camera lens with free shipping if I give them my shipping address and the consent for them to obtain the shipping history to that address from a few large merchants, then I may be happy to share my address – that is firmly a relationship in market domain – and I am happy, but when I start to see ads from drunk-driving lawyers in Denver area b/c I searched for “maximum legal blood alcohol level” - I was taking an online traffic school exam to clear a ticket – while attending a conference in Denver area, that is crossing the line, and that is when I might have come close to understanding how that girl felt on the fourth date in Dan Airely’s example!