Facebook Nation: Millions and Millions of Worried People

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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Facebook is expected to announce sometime this week that it has topped half a billion users. That's 500 million globally. For a website that began life in the humble environs of a college dorm room, it's quite a milestone. However, many of those users are concerned about how their information is being used, as Facebook has learned repeatedly as it has made changes along the way.

The question remains, though, when the service has grown from 400 million users to more than 500 million in less than six months, are privacy concerns really likely to change how business is done in social networking?

"People are deeply invested in Facebook," Jennifer Golbeck, assistant professor of information studies at the University of Maryland, told TechNewsWorld. Thus, they are likely to weigh the advantages of having hundreds of friends and a wealth of information already available to them on this particular service against anything Facebook may do to change its privacy policies.

Pennies for Privacy

In fact, nearly half of people in the U.S. who use social networking are concerned about their privacy, according to recent research by Marist Poll. Of the roughly 1,000 U.S. citizens polled, 23 percent reported being "very concerned," and another 27 percent reported that they were "concerned." Still, 43 percent of those contacted reported having a profile on Facebook or a site like it -- MySpace, for instance.

Interestingly, while women reported more overall concern with privacy issues, they also outnumbered men in social networking use, according to Marist, by 45 percent to 40 percent.

For these people, Facebook has become an "important part of their communication structure," said Golbeck. So, while a major change in privacy policies -- like the one implemented by Facebook several months ago with the universal rollout of the "Like" button -- may rile users, it may not disturb them enough to push them off a service used by so many of those friends, colleagues, and family members with whom they wish to communicate.

Money From the Millions

For any online service -- from streaming music to photo libraries -- the challenge always has been how to monetize use. People may check their Facebook accounts once, twice, or tens of times per day, but who really profits? In this case, it's the advertisers, and Facebook has taken a raft of complaints to be able to provide ever-more-granular information about users to prospective and current ad buyers.

That "Like" button, for example, provides a great deal of information to advertisers, who then can serve up ads tailored specifically to users' special interests as people perform simple tasks such as updating their status or sending out the latest picture of a kid's summer activity.

However, while Facebook -- and other tech giants like Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT), Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) and Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) -- might be engaging in the same competitive strategies that have long fueled the marketing efforts of brick-and-mortar companies, their reach is amplified by the very fact of the numbers of people and website visits involved, Claire Simmers, professor and chair of international business at St. Joseph's University, told TechNewsWorld.

"Along with this sharing comes an added responsibility for your own privacy," Simmers said.

Apparently, people are taking that privacy seriously enough to warrant some detailed responses from Facebook, even if they aren't leaving the service over their concerns. Earlier this month, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg posted a detailed entry on the official Facebook blog explaining how those personalized ads are served up to individuals' profile pages.

Only aggregate data is supplied to advertisers, she stressed. Facebook does not share personal information with advertisers. As an added explanation, the company supplied a video called "How Advertising Works on Facebook" to further assure users with privacy worries.
By Kimberly Hill


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