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Who Owns the Data?

At Communispace, I listen to a lot of community member conversations. Our Communities help companies listen to the voice of their customers 24/7 in a private, online environment that bears some similarities to other social networks. So it’s inevitable that, like any social network, the members end up sharing a lot—with one another and with us—and we listen to all of it. My favorite example is how one woman told the community she was expecting even before she told her husband! Our members share pictures of their homes, families, vacations, and food pantries. They upload videos and hop-on live chats at the drop of a hat. As time goes by, our connection to our members deepens, giving us permission to dig deeper and ask more, and empowering us to deliver their messages in more meaningful ways.

So what do you do when a community member expands the relationship beyond the community and friends you on Facebook? Suddenly you have access to even more information about him or her. Are you free to share that information with the executive that sponsors the C-space community he or she is a part of? Or is it personal information that’s best kept personal?

It seems that there are more tools than ever to help us to get to know one another.

Journalists who do investigative research are also faced with these issues. A good friend of mine just attended the SLA (Special Libraries Association) conference in D.C., and reported back on a presentation given by Meg Smith from the Washington Post. Apparently news reporters are increasingly using social networks for investigative research—but they have to decide what the ethical boundaries are when they are thinking about printing specific information.

Take the case of a devastating car crash in Maryland that resulted in the death of one driver and the hospitalization of the other driver. The hospitalized driver had a MySpace page, where she made several references to drinking alcohol while underage—and even posted a photo of herself holding a half-empty bottle of rum while driving her car. But police had not indicated that alcohol was a factor in the crash, so if the reporter called out the references to alcohol, and drinking and driving on her MySpace page, they would be introducing personal information that wasn’t necessarily relevant to this crash. According to Meg, this could have been potentially libelous, since there’s “nothing about that MySpace profile that suggested she had been drinking the night of the accident, and accusing someone of drunk driving could expose a newspaper to a libel suit if it’s not true.”

What to do? Anyone could have turned up the MySpace profile, but they couldn’t mention it without the police confirming that alcohol was a factor. So a commenter accused the reporter of not living “in the modern world” because he thought they missed the MySpace angle altogether.

Social networks can lead us to information that few other public records can—the comments people make on their public walls can tell us quite a bit about that person’s mindset, behavior, and even their value system. So, how should this information be used, if at all? I would love to hear your thoughts.

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