No matter how much Facebook messes with our emotions and pressures us to give up our data to their advertisers, they’ve hardly done anything serious enough to drive us away. Most people trump it up to apathy — we don’t care how much we’re violated if we get to use the service for free. But a new study poses another possible answer.
Last week, Pew Research Center released a report on privacy in the “post-Snowden era” and how Americans see government surveillance, social media sites and advertisers. Unsurprisingly, 91 percent of everyone surveyed believe “consumers have lost control over how personal information is collected and used by companies.”
In the report, Pew gathered a number of factlets without pulling them together for the key insight about why we still use social media sites even though we know they’re taking and selling our information to advertisers.
No one trusts social media
Across all channels of communication — including texts, emails, cell phone calls, landlines and instant messaging clients — social media came out as the leading champion of distrust, and the only method of communication that a majority of people gave the condemnation of “not at all secure.”
In terms of who actually gets the information, advertisers actually came out slightly behind the government in terms of who can be trusted, which isn’t surprising in the age of Edward Snowden, NSA spying and the constant threat of cybersecurity breaches.
So why are we still using social networks if they’re the least secure way of communicating and they openly collaborate with advertisers we trust less than the federal government?
It turns out, we don’t care about what we’re giving them.
One man’s trash is Facebook’s treasure
On a later page in their report, Pew asked exactly what kinds of personal information is most sensitive. Ranked at the top of the things people are most protective of was medical history, the content of phone calls and, obviously, social security numbers.
At the bottom half of that chart are things like the music and shows you like, your political and religious views, and who your friends are:
(Chart via Pew Research)
These things that we don’t think of as sensitive are exactly the kinds of data social media sites are interested in for the sake of their advertisers. It turns out, we just don’t think we’re giving Facebook anything valuable.
Additionally, Pew shows that people are also aware that giving up this kind of info greases the wheels for the social media machine:
Social media users were also particularly likely to “agree” or “strongly agree” that they are willing to exchange some of their personal data for free online services. Some 60 percent said so, compared with 46 percent of those who do not use social media.
So even if we don’t trust these channels or their business partners, as long as we think we’re feeding them garbage, we don’t mind handing over our browsing history and social graph.
But ad revenue isn’t necessarily what the future for social media looks like. Facebook and Snapchat are seperately pursuing new lines of business in payment processing and baning on private messaging as the cash cow — exactly the kind of information people think twice before handing out.
If social media sites start moving into this territory with the tone-deafness to privacy concerns that has cast them as surveillance-mongers in the eyes of the public, the most damning revelations in the “post-Snowden” era won’t have anything to do with the NSA or the government, but what private corporations and advertisers are willing to take from us to profit.