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The Realities of Social Media Data Mining

by William Laurent, William Laurent, Inc.Monday, March 14, 2011

The data mining of social media activity is now commonplace in business intelligence circles. Over the course of the last 18 months, this stream of BI has experienced a startling rate of growth and reached lofty levels of sophistication. Just a few short years ago, consumer-oriented businesses were stuck in the world of static “focus groups” and paper-based surveys. But not even the most forward-looking of these organizations could have dreamed of the present-day scenario, where newly forged nuggets of data about consumer behavior and preferences wait to be mined by state-of-the-art BI computing infrastructure. Even the U.S Government, which is usually late to any technology trend, is looking to get in on the action as well. The Obama administration has expressed a keen interest in performing data mining against content posted on the White House’s Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter pages.

Anything and everything on the Internet is fair game for extreme data mining practices. Once something is pushed out to the World Wide Web, it will forever be fodder for a business intelligence or data mining application somewhere in the cyberspace universe.  But despite our best judgment about the pictures we upload to Facebook or the posts we make on MySpace and YouTube, in the heat of the moment our prudence often fails us. This is because social networking is, to a large part, about vanity: We want all of our friends and colleagues to see how cool and fulfilling our life is: what we had for dinner; what fancy places we have visited; how our dogs made a mess on the living room carpet.  Vanity (and electronically enabled narcissism) will forever take the form of impulsiveness, which is not a good character trait when posting under one’s own name, especially when one’s post may wind up being in the public domain for a long time.

For many social media sites, the Terms of Service (TOS) are explicitly clear and to the point: If you post content to the site you essentially grant the site permission to use the content for any purpose they deem appropriate. While each site is different in their irrevocable and perpetual right to reproduce the information found in your posts, it is wise to err on the side of caution. No matter how private you deem the content, privacy controls usually only go so far - the demarcation between private and public information remains fuzzy at best. In some cases, once you submit content it may instantaneously become the intellectual property of social networking site, even if you delete or purge the submission in its entirety. Speaking from personal experience, the array of privacy options on my favorite social media sites is quite robust; nevertheless, these privacy controls never fail to confuse me every time I tinker with them, leaving me unsure about how my sensitive information and opinions will be used.

Users of the world’s most popular social networking site remain unaware that Facebook recently launched an extremely controversial Instant Personalization feature that essentially “transfers” a registered member’s profile data from Facebook to external third-party websites. What is alarming is that Facebook lends out this data without any sort of opt-in permission on the part of the member. When the member visits one of Facebook’s partner sites (such as Yelp), the site will automatically reveal (at the bottom of the page) which of the member’s Facebook friends have reviewed a similar business in their geographical area. I was startled the first time I stumbled on this. And when the initial shock wore off, I was more than a little offended and less trustful of Facebook. Not only was my information going to third-party affiliate sites, my list of friends and publically available information about those friends was tagging along for the ride. After some detective work, I discovered that there is a way to opt-out of this personalization feature, thank goodness! But what irks me is that Facebook does precious little to make their members aware of this feature (and how to turn it off) in the first place.

Taking this functionality further, a user of Facebook may have their posts show up in advertisements that are customized and targeted to their friends as part of a “Sponsored Story.” This story feature gives advertisers the authority to republish and repackage a user’s post that references the advertiser’s products or services. For example:  If a friend “checks into” a store or becomes a fan of a brand’s Facebook page, this information can appear on the right side of a user’s Facebook pages as a virtual billboard, for which an advertiser will, no doubt, pay handsomely. (Thankfully, the Sponsored Stories do not show up in a user’s main news feed; however there is currently there is no way for users to turn off this feature and keep their tastes and preferences compartmentalized and the viewership of these more controlled).

The purpose of these social media cautionary tales is not to single out and beat up on Facebook; however, its unparalleled financial impact (1.5 billion dollars in advertising revenue) and size make it the most relevant example. (As of this writing there are over 500 million registered users of Facebook, giving it a population larger than almost every country in the world.) In the social networking world and in the Web 3.0 paradigm in general, innovation often comes at a cost to privacy. This bodes well for BI companies that are focused on data mining the information on Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, My Space, etc, although it is confounding for those of us that use social networks on a regular basis and live by the mantra: “What happens in the Network, stays in the Network.”

While the staying power of business intelligence and consumer data prospecting has been tested year in and year out for decades now (BI’s importance and utility increases with each passing year); the long term viability of some of the world’s most popular social media sites is not a sure thing. As more and more social networking sites come online the competition for registered (and active) users will escalate. Not only will social networks need to do more to procure new users and retain current ones, they will have to create new and novel ways to monetize their websites. For better or worse, supplying content created by a social network’s users to outside websites, advertisers, and affiliates for data mining purposes is a sure fire way to generate revenue for the foreseeable future. It will remain an important component of the social networking business model, as data mining methodologies progress far beyond traditional demographic profiling into interpolation and statistical modeling based on swarms and cluster groups. So powerful and lucrative is social media data mining that governments around the globe have begun to carefully scrutinize the need for regulation in this space, especially with respect to protecting the privacy of their citizen’s that post data to these networks. While some regulation is probably needed, what concerns me is when the legislators of the free world start demanding social networks involuntarily hand over their user-generated content in order to better enable central governments to carry out their own “citizen intelligence” and data mining programs. That day may be closer than any of us care to realize.

About the Author

William Laurent is one of the world's leading experts in information strategy and governance. For 20 years, he has advised numerous businesses and governments on technology strategy, performance management, and best practices—across all market sectors. William currently runs an independent consulting company that bears his name. In addition, he frequently teaches classes, publishes books and magazine articles, and lectures on various technology and business topics worldwide.. As a Senior Contributing Author for Dashboard Insight, he would enjoy your comments at wlaurent@williamlaurent.com

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