What is it about social media that draws people in? According to Facebook’s website, its mission is “to make the world more open and connected. People use Facebook to stay connected with friends and family, to discover what’s going on in the world, and to share and express what matters to them.”

But is this really true? On social media sites, are people really connected to each other, or merely engaged in an aggregation of anonymous contacts? While it is true that Facebook’s popularity has increased exponentially each year since its inception, many current users censor what photos and comments they share, posting only content that positions them in the best light possible. Yet even with this, a large amount of personal information is being made available online that may hinder your online reputation, as well as aid marketers in creating targeted advertising intended to appeal to your interests and preferences.

Beyond capturing a user’s time and attention, social media is deemed a safe place to share one’s innermost thoughts and feelings for the world – or at least a large online audience – to read. The need for a sense of community and constant audience often means users of social media sites such as Facebook share far more information about themselves than they reasonably should. Gone is the demand for privacy. Now, people put their lives on the Internet for all to see. For Christopher Michaelson, Ph.D., an  associate professor of business ethics at the Opus College of Business, this means that people don’t fully understand the extent to which they are exposing themselves online.

Today, there is more information available to decision makers than one can feasibly manage, make sense of or put to use. What does this mean for marketers? Jonathan Seltzer, an instructor of marketing at the Opus College of Business, said, “The sheer wealth of data that is available increases the segmentation well beyond what was previously imaginable.” Social media sites and online networks leverage the power of peer-to-peer relationships and referrals to learn about their users and make money based on what they know. “In theory, better targeting should mean more efficient marketing for business, and in a consumer economy that should equate to lower costs and happier customers,” said Michael Porter, Ed.D., director of the Master of Business Communication program at the Opus College of Business. But this may not always be the case.

Information is Power

Not so many years ago, large companies were cautious about using social media sites to gather information about job applicants for fear of legal repercussions. Today, it is common practice to Google an applicant’s name as a way to learn more about past work history, interests and hobbies, as well as an applicant’s personal life. Mick Sheppeck, Ph.D., an associate professor of management at the Opus College of Business, noted, “Companies are increasingly using personal information as they search for qualified applicants and this is likely to continue until people become more cognizant of what they are sharing online and who can access that information.”

In a January 2013 WCCO segment “Beware: Your Reputation is Now Being Googled,” Greg Swan, a digital strategist at Weber Shandwick, noted that 70 percent of job candidates are rejected purely based on the results of searching one’s name online. “It used to be that you’d ask someone, ‘Have you Googled yourself lately?’ and we’d all  giggle. But now that’s a real thing,” Swan said.

That’s not to say people are naive about what they do and don’t share online, but many do not realize the full extent of their actions until it’s too late. Generally speaking, social media users can be broken into two camps in terms of how they think about personal information and one’s right to privacy. Sheppeck said the smaller camp believes that access to personal data is the way of the world. Regardless of safeguards, individuals cannot protect themselves and should quit worrying. The other, larger camp needs to pay more attention and be mindful of what they choose to share. “Millennials, even more than other groups, are limited in their awareness of how personal information is being used today,” Sheppeck said.

Targeting the Masses

According to a February 2012 survey by the Pew Research Center, 73 percent of 2,253 adult respondents answered that they would not be OK with a search engine (such as Google) keeping track of their searches and using the results to personalize future searches. And 68 percent said they were uncomfortable with targeted advertising for the same reason: They didn’t want anyone tracking their behavior. That being said, user actions do not reflect these findings as millions of people routinely share the most intimate details of their lives online.

When Facebook launched in 2004, it was heralded for its lack of advertising. With 1 billion active monthly users as of October 2012, a lot has changed since its founding. The  average Facebook user is regularly commenting on photos and “liking” content, updating their status and connecting with friends and family, as well as those they’ve never met. While no stranger to advertising, the average Facebook user may not realize how her information is being used to generate the targeted ads she sees every time she logs in. If you recently became engaged, the ads are tailored accordingly and may include bridesmaid dresses, photographers, upcoming wedding shows and invitations, with many products and vendors showing up as promoted posts in a user’s news feed. Once you update your status to reflect your recent nuptials, the ads will change again, likely  focusing on the next logical step after that blissful walk down the aisle … the honeymoon followed by babies.

For those looking to advertise with Facebook, the online social giant leverages its more than 1 billion users, saying, “We’ll help you reach the right ones.” But what does that mean? Every piece of information shared on Facebook says something about a user. Individually, those pieces of information aren’t much, but together they tell a very complete story about each user’s personal life, education and work experience, likes and hobbies, and much more. By targeting a group based on location, age and likes, marketers can reach a very specific segment of their target audience and one that is likely to be receptive to the message being communicated.

Facebook’s primary source of revenue is advertising. By selecting key words and personal information shared by each user – such as relationship status, location, employment, likes and activities – businesses can run ads targeting a selected subset of users. A February 2012 article on the New York Times opinion page stated that Facebook earned $3.2 billion in advertising revenue in 2011, which makes up 85 percent of its total revenue.

The same article noted Google’s use of personal data for advertising and its resulting $36.5 billion in advertising revenue in 2011. By simply “analyzing what people sent  over Gmail and what they searched on the Web,” Google obtains a mass of data and information to sell ads, markedly more information than even Facebook, given that Google is one of the most popular search engines used today.

A Right to Privacy

According to Porter, “There is a balance that consumers need to accept between privacy and free services as a part of the economic exchange.” As consumers, your buying habits and purchases provide information about you, and retailers would be foolish to ignore this information, but at what point does it cross the line? To that end, Sheppeck raised several interesting questions: “How much data is too much? Where should companies draw the line when it comes to mining for customer information? If privacy is the number one concern, at what point is an individual’s privacy breeched?”

Additionally, Sheppeck added, the mere act of tracking and storing personal data puts that data at risk and, therefore, puts individual privacy at risk. If the practice of mining personal information is to continue with little or no legislation regulating it there must be safeguards in place to protect said data. While breeches of security are to be expected, consumers expect that personal information will be protected in addition to being leveraged.

What the Future Holds

With far more questions than answers, this issue is just starting to heat up. As users of social media start at a younger age and people become more conscious of how their personal information is being used, as well as how it impacts their online reputation and subsequent ability to get a job, the legal ramifications will start coming to light. “Right now, the economy is our primary concern. As the economy improves or at least stabilizes, issues regarding user privacy and how personal information is managed will find their way into the courtroom, and the resulting legislation will better safeguard the personal data being shared online,” Sheppeck said. “In the near future, we will need a federal standard that articulates data areas that are off limits.”

Until then, users must be vigilant about what they do and don’t share online. It often is forgotten that the Internet lives on. You may delete a post or picture, but  somewhere, on some far distant server, there is a record of you at last year’s office party with a lampshade on your head.

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