Do You Trust Your Social Network?

Wouldn't you consider it an invasion of your privacy if marketers could rummage through your closet to check your brand preferences? What if potential employers could disguise themselves and enter your social life in order to evaluate you for a job?

These things can't happen, of course. We live secure in the knowledge that they are against the law.

Now consider Gen Y, whose members live in an open environment, and embrace social networking that breaks through the divide between their online and offline worlds. Their Facebook pages are a natural extension of their social lives, and they feel secure in the knowledge that they hold the keys to their personal spaces. As long as they play by the rules, they can choose whom to invite and whom to exclude.

Then, the rules are altered. Social network operators begin unlocking the doors to people's personal worlds. The recent debate about Facebook is only the tip of the iceberg; frequent changes in privacy settings in social media are resulting in an entire generation becoming increasingly wary and guarded about their private lives.

Conventional wisdom holds that Millennials are, in general, willing to share intimate details of their private lives with an online audience. However, recent research by the Pew Internet Project found that although 75% of Millennials in the US have a profile on a social network, most place boundaries on it. In fact, the study found that members of Gen Y were more likely to monitor privacy settings than are older people, and more often delete comments or remove their names from photos so they can't be identified. In another survey by the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology, 88% of a sample of Gen Y-ers voiced support for a law that would require websites to delete captured information. Sixty-two percent of them wanted the right to know everything a website knows about them.

Operators of social networks argue that relatively loose privacy restrictions improve the user experience and allow customization of the platform for each user. For instance, they can track likes and dislikes to provide each person with more relevant information. But isn't this a kind of cyber-stalking?

It's common knowledge that HR professionals take advantage of lax privacy settings to screen candidates based on their Facebook content. A Melbourne-based recruitment consultant believes that the practice of winnowing candidates based on personal information online is little different from excluding someone because of gender, sexual preference, marital status, or age. In a recent comment on an article in The New York Times, "Neville J." called on legislators to outlaw the practice. Judging by the large number of endorsements he received, many others share his sense of alarm.

Look at the broader issue. I believe that collaboration through social networks is an important way of building trust. Trust is built on transparency. If you are in the business of enabling collaboration through social networks, you have to demonstrate that you can be trusted. So, I ask, can you afford to change the rules midway? Or do frequent changes corrode the very foundations of trust?

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