There is one truly remarkable aspect about the social media services that people take for granted: they don’t ask their users for anything. You can talk with as many friends, take as many selfies, post as many status messages, all without paying anything.
That may be true at face value, but that’s not really true. It’s said that “if you’re not paying for it, you’re the product.” In the world of social media, that’s definitely true. Social media companies all need to pay the bills (and more); the most common way of doing so is by selling ads.
More than selling ads, these ads are targeted – based on what you do, say, and share on these sites. The social networks will even try to sell this as a feature, hailing these as “relevant” ads.
Is my personal information being sold?
Not really. The information that social networks hold about any user is far too valuable to be sold off. That information is why social media companies are worth billions of dollars. What the information is used for is to allow advertisers and marketers to target users with remarkable specificity.
For example, an advertiser who wants to sell car accessories may choose exactly who they want to show their ads to: it can be something along the lines of males of a specific age group, who already “likes” certain car makes, etcetera. (Purely out of coincidence, this week a gathering of advertisers and marketers is being held in New York as part of Advertising Week.)
Note that in theory, all of this information is anonymized. In practice, this means that your name is not attached to the information. However, depending on how much information you give about yourself – and what privacy settings you used – someone might be able to identify you anyway.
In the future, not only could your data be used to customize your ads – you yourself could be used in advertising. Under proposed policy changes your name and picture can be used for advertising within Facebook as well – without you giving your direct consent. So, for example, if you “like” a certain brand, they can use your picture in their Facebook.
Yes, I want my ads to be relevant to me. I don’t mind brands that I like letting others know that I like them.
Some users may actually welcome these developments. Others, however, will be more skeptical. Some may even consider it equivalent to stalking, while others will just find it “creepy”.
Others may object at this point - hang on, I didn’t agree to this! As a matter of fact, you did. By merely agreeing to use any social media site, you agree to their terms. If, unfortunately, due to the network effect you need to use a social network to stay in touch with others… you’re basically out of luck.
Whatever the case, this is something that people should be mindful about. Social media sites will use your data to profit – and not necessarily by “selling” your information. You may not be paying with money, but you’re paying with your information.
There are two things users can do. First, be careful about what you do share: social media sites can’t profit off what they don’t have. Secondly, if privacy controls and opts-out exist – use them. You may not always have a choice to protect your information, but if you do, use them – in order to send a message about how you value your information.
Of course, if you’re on social media, the sites themselves are not the only potential parties you may want to protect your data from. Other users and third-party apps are on this list. To learn how to use the privacy features of social networks to your full advantage, you can consult our digital life e-guide, How to Protect Your Privacy on Social Media.
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