by Paul Jacobson (@pauljacobson) A fairly subtle, and yet fundamental, shift has been underway for a few years now and it is likely to radically change digital marketing if it becomes the norm. This shift isn’t necessarily about users moving from one service to another (although this is indicative of the shift); it is more profound than that. As you may expect, this shift has do with privacy and, if you’re a marketer, you’re not going to like it.

Paul JacobsonPrivacy a perennial concern

Although privacy is a perennial concern on the social web, the major social services such as Facebook, Google+ and Twitter are optimised for publicity. Each of these services caters for users’ privacy preferences in varying degrees.

Facebook and Google+ have fairly involved privacy controls, to the point of being confusing enough to most users that they don’t bother customising them to suit their preferences. I don’t believe that this is unintentional.

On the contrary, these privacy controls are confusing by design. They have the appearance of being user-friendly and giving users choices about what to share with whom — but making effective use of these privacy controls requires a fair amount of commitment to safeguarding your privacy, and most users don’t have it.

Structural bias towards publicity

To add to this structural bias towards publicity are the many features and functions which prompt users to share more with more people and which even override users’ carefully selected privacy settings, with little regard for the consequences of those design choices.

Take the example of Bobbi Duncan who, in 2012, was revealed as a lesbian when the president of the University of Texas’ Queer Chorus added her to a Facebook group for the Queer Chorus, which automatically notified Duncan’s friends that she had joined the group and, effectively, outed her to her Facebook friends, including her father who was both extremely homophobic and unaware that his daughter was gay.

Duncan had made a concerted effort to customise her Facebook privacy preferences so very few people would know that she is lesbian. What she and the Queer Chorus president did not expect was that the Facebook group’s privacy controls would override Duncan’s profile settings.

Highlights the gap

Facebook’s response highlights the gap between the social network’s interests and its users’:

“Our hearts go out to these young people. They are unfortunate experience reminds us that we must continue our work to empower and educate users about our robust privacy controls.”

This wasn’t a case of a Facebook user not being sufficiently aware of the privacy controls available. Duncan took the time to customise her privacy controls very carefully. What exposed her was not her ignorance but rather a privacy loophole that allowed anyone to add a person to a group without their approval and then publicise that on the user’s Timeline automatically.

Obvious reason

The reason for this “feature” is obvious: Facebook’s entire business model depends on users sharing as much personal information as they possibly can to feed increasingly personalised display ads.

Google’s model is similar. Although there are no ads in the Google+ stream, users’ personal information and activities are used to personalise search results and other Google services.

Both Google and Facebook recently expanded their efforts to use personal information and connections to imply endorsements by users’ connections. While Facebook did not give users a choice, Google’s choice was between allowing it to use its users’ personal information in this manner or expressly opting out of this ‘feature’ in the Google+ settings. This forced Google users who had not yet ‘upgraded’ their accounts to Google+ accounts to make the change which then included them in the broader Google+ ecosystem, something which they had probably preferred to remain out of.

Disguise a willingness

The “robust privacy controls” that each of these services have developed for their users disguise a willingness to disregard users’ privacy preferences when they frustrate lucrative business models that are not only optimised for publicity but are almost entirely dependent upon it.

The apparent trend towards messaging services as an alternative to these more-established social networks is more than just a shift to something different. What these messaging services (and more private social networks such as Path) have in common is that they are optimised for privacy.

Rather than being reliant upon increased publicity to sustain their business models, these services use more direct revenue models and a variety of addictive social features to keep users engaged with each other and dependent upon the service for their social interaction.

Instead of paying for the service with their attention to ads, these users may buy content, premium services or even take advantage of unobtrusive and branded service offerings.

Fundamentally different models

These two models are fundamentally different. Where Facebook, Google and, to a lesser extent, Twitter rely upon increasingly public sharing to grow, messaging services and more private social networks give their users a more personal experience and offer them the opportunity to pay for features and content they find more valuable without sacrificing their privacy in the process.

As more users opt for an option designed to protect their privacy, digital marketers have to change their strategies to better accommodate more privacy-conscious users, who expect their deliberate choices, about what they share with whom, to be respected and not sacrificed for the sake of ad personalisation and shareholder value.

Paul Jacobson (@pauljacobson) is the founder and director of Web•Tech•Law. He contributes the regular “Tech Law” column focusing on issues in the digital marketing space to CC BY-SA 2.5

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