Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
January 18, 201111:59 AM

What You Always Need To Remember About The Internet

Your information is not (really) yours... and it's everywhere.

The news last week was littered (once again) with WikiLeaks. In an attempt to figure out exactly what Julian Assange and his team knows (and where they are getting their leaks from), the U.S. Department of Justice has been asking for information from places like Twitter, Facebook and Google (more on that here: Mashable - Social Media and Subpoenas: A Broken System That Puts Journalistic Sources at Risk and here Fast Company - Why Twitter Was the Only Company to Challenge the Secret WikiLeaks Subpoena). While the mass media outcry is focused on journalism and their ability to keep their sources secret, these issues also highlight the challenge that faces many individuals and brands when it comes to the online channels.

What you need to always remember about the Internet...

  • It's a business. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc. are not social organizations created to help the better good. They are businesses and they are corporations. Their main focus is all the same: they are here to make money. While they may have other lofty goals (connecting all human beings or helping people to share ideas), they are not charitable groups. On top of that, there is a reason why they are all free. There are no free lunches. By giving you the service for free, they need to make money somewhere (and, more often than not, it's from capitalizing on your information).
  • Terms of service. Before signing up to any service, you have to sign and agree to their terms of services. Simply put, this is a legal document created so that the company can't be sued... for anything. It's a document to protect the company (and in doing so, it does not provide that much protection to the consumer - that's you and the brands you represent). While some of these terms and services agreement have a more fair and balanced approach (for instance, Twitter will notify you if government or police have asked for your data) many companies are simply looking to ensure their own assets. On top of that, because these channels are ever-changing and evolving, so too are the terms or service. This is a "buyer beware" scenario.
  • Your content is (probably) yours. While you retain the rights to the text, images, audio and video that you post online, always consider that the content is now public and shareable forever. We've seen this evolution in platforms like Facebook. As Facebook continues to grow in popularity, they are opening up the information of their users to more and more people. Originally, only the people you were connected to (and agreed to connect to) could see everything you posted, but as Facebook attempts to gain more members (which equates to more money and advertising opportunities), they will continue to "open up" people's profiles. Contrast that with Twitter, where everything you tweet (from day one) is available for all to see regardless of who you are following (and who follows you).
  • Money. Money. Money. While there are many tactics to how online social networks can make money, there are really only two overall strategies. Strategy number one: they sell the value of the network (the size and reach) along with the personalized data (geographic, psychographic, etc...) to advertisers who can then send those users more targeted messages. Strategy number two: they are looking to grow the company to the point where it becomes a valuable acquisition property, and then sell the company (and all of the data that comes with it) to another company. In both instances, you have to be well-aware that you data is never in the hands of one group, and that their intent is always to share this data to make money.
  • It's out of your hands. There are countless groups of people trying to fight everything I've Blogged about above. These people feel like they have rights to the data and information and should have choices in terms of what their data is being used for. In a perfect world, I'd love to agree, but if you go back to point number one above, this is about business. Users and brands have to know and always remember that these services are free and opt-in because they are looking to make money from the information that comes from the usage. While complaining and petitioning the companies can change certain aspects of the business, it will never sway away from making money or growing the data sets.
  • There are no "copies". Thinking about your pictures and videos in terms of someone else having a "copy" is a mistake. This is the same mistake that many traditional organizations have when looking at WikiLeaks. There are no copies. The picture you have on your camera that you then post to Facebookares not copies... it's another place where an original version of that picture now exists. The same can be said of everything digital - from you text messages and emails to your tweets on Twitter.
  • You can't have privacy. If you want privacy in any digital channels (and this includes your own email!), don't be in a online social network. It's just that simple. Even if you're comfortable with the current privacy settings in places like Twitter and Facebook, be very aware that they can change at any given moment in time.

This shouldn't scare you. It simply is what it is.

In my book, Six Pixels of Separation, I have a section called, Resign Your Privacy. The fact remains: there are tremendous business and professional development opportunities by engaging in these digital channels, but you have to be aware that it does come at a price. That price is that your information is now public, shareable and being used by other companies to better understand how you're using it and who you are connecting with to better segment your data so that it can be used to be monetized.

Welcome to the new business. How are you feeling about it?

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for the Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun newspapers called, New Business - Six Pixels of Separation. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original versions online here:

By Mitch Joel