I know, I know. A lot of us rolled our eyes earlier this week when The Wall Street Journal breathlessly announced that its exclusive investigation had revealed another Facebook privacy breach, this one about personally identifiable information leaking out while no one was looking via the social net's third-party apps.
TechCrunch's Michael Arrington summed up the industry feelings nicely, when he said:
"The only real concern is that all that data can also be tied to you doing something with a third party app. So in addition to your profile information, the database also gets to know that you like Farmville.
"Is this a real problem? No."
You know this. I know this. But the reason this is still a problem is that the rest of the world doesn't know this -- including most of the 500 million people on Facebook, a lot of federal officials, and most CMOs. All most of us need is to hear the words "Wall Street Journal," "investigation," "Facebook" and "privacy breach" strung together and we're good to go -- off into paranoia that isn't justified. So, once again this week people were positively getting tied up in their underwear over social data. Gotta protect the privates!
But, sigh... even if you do get why this isn't a big deal, it's really hard to explain it to those who don't.
Yes, the perception versus the reality of the guts of social data is a favorite topic of mine, but this week it hit me with renewed force because of how this played out in my work life. I frequently appear on an LA news radio station commenting on social media topics, which, given the broad audience, usually presents the challenge of describing what's going on with Facebook and Twitter and privacy in plainer language than you and I would normally discuss them in.
Naturally, I got the call to comment about the privacy breach story, but this time I felt almost incoherent in trying to explain why this just didn't merit as much concern as the story was generating. Good thing the interview was taped! It made me wish we could assign a star system to news stories of privacy breaches, and Facebook privacy breaches in particular -- one star being "Not worth losing any sleep over" and five stars being "Delete your Facebook account now and enter the Witness Protection Program!!!" That might make it simpler.
Since the star system doesn't exist, I finally told the interviewer something to the effect that if you were looking for yet another reason not to waste your life playing "Farmville," this privacy breach was as good a new reason as any. True, but not very reassuring.
So, as I've said before, when it comes to social data, the industry has to remember that in order to calm consumers, it's not about the reality of how data is being used, but the perception -- and learning to communicate that reality in ways that anyone can understand. Me, I'm still working on it.