It’s Halloween, a time when we revel in ghosts, ghouls, and all things creepy. In the social media marketing world, it’s also a time for tricks and treats. The “trick” is scanning a person’s social networking sites such as Facebook or LinkedIn looking for treats in the form of business opportunities. Social media marketing companies continue to add features that look through an individual’s social network, ingest and analyze the posts therein, and look for information that signals a potential need for whatever the company sells.
Sorry, but this is plain creepy, stalker behavior. It’s one thing to scan the posts of a company’s Facebook page. People who post there know that’s why the page is there—to sell them something through social engagement. It’s why companies hand out coupons on their Facebook page. Scanning individual employee accounts is a different matter entirely. When we connect to someone on Facebook or LinkedIn, the expectation of privacy is different. It is assumed that the posts I allow you to see are personal and not meant to be individually mined. With Twitter you know that you are broadcasting publically yet, I would bet most people would find it unsettling to post something and have an offer from a follower shoot back at them.
In a nutshell, a commercial response from a supposed friend or colleague from a personal post is not the same thing as a post directed at a company. It is not the same thing as pulling market intelligence from aggregated, deidentified streams. It’s like telling a friend at a party that you haven’t been feeling well lately and having them try and sell you life insurance right there. Most people walk away to get another drink—and don’t come back.
Using software to mine your social networks may be illegal in some countries or violate the terms of service (ToS) of many social websites. Then again, this type of use may be perfectly legal and within the ToS. It’s also irrelevant. People may do this manually—in fact, I’m sure they do—but that’s beside the point. There’s even an argument that by connecting with someone through a social network, tacit approval is given to look through their posts for business opportunities. No way. There is no opt-out to the unwritten rules that that govern these communities.
The reason none of those arguments hold water is because social networks are governed by social contracts. The written, binding contracts of the ToS or EU privacy laws are only the lowest common denominator of what is acceptable behavior. Much more important are the unwritten agreements that hold together human communities. People join social networks to connect to people in different ways and have expectations of the behavior of people within their networks that mirror all personal social interactions. Mining a personal social network for business opportunities violates that social contract. In other words, it’s creepy.
That creepiness makes it bad business. Instead of a wealth of business opportunities it seems more likely that a person using this software will be unfriended and disconnected from their social networks. On top of that, many people will be angered at what they will see as a misuse of the trust they placed in the social contract. Making people upset is usually a terrible way to do business, unless you are running a boiler room operation. And don’t care if nobody loves you but your mother (and she could be jivin’ too).*
Many thoughtful people think that mining a personal social network for business opportunities is good for business. They are convinced that companies will pay to empower their employees to have this capability. I worry that they may be right. I worry that companies will start to pressure their workers to use these tools to do something that is harmful to the long term prospects of the business and the social life of the employee. They will encourage their own workers to break a key social contract. I don’t see how that can succeed.
* Apologies to B.B. King.