Would analytics calm social network privacy fears?

Neither Facebook nor Google+ lets users gather data about visits to their profiles

With the unveiling of its Google+ social network, Google is again bringing to the spotlight the recurring question of whether social network privacy settings are too complex, confusing many users and causing them to share posts with more people than intended.

Google is raising the issue now in order to pound on Facebook, pledging that people will find that Google+'s mechanism for sharing content is simpler and more intuitive, thus lessening privacy concerns.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Google dealing with privacy bugs in Google+. | Stay ahead of the key tech business news with InfoWorld's Today's Headlines: First Look newsletter. ]

Whether Google accomplishes that remains to be seen. Google+, still in limited beta release, is a work in progress, and privacy glitches have been reported and acknowledged by the company. Some also feel that understanding Google+'s privacy controls at this point isn't as easy as Google initially promised.

Facebook could also very easily take issue with the premise that its privacy settings are a major concern to its users, considering that usage of the site continues to grow massively. The site recently exceeded 750 million registered users worldwide, and time spent on the site continues to rise.

Still, assuming that there is an opportunity for consumer social networks to reduce privacy anxiety among some of its users, it seems timely to question whether traffic analytics could help.

Web usage analytics software has been around for many years, giving publishers traffic data for their sites, yet this type of functionality has been extremely limited or non-existent for users of consumer social networking sites.

Has the time come for analytics in social networks, as a way to bring transparency to how content is being shared and to dispel privacy concerns? Could this be a game-changing privacy feature for the first social network to adopt such a policy?

"Interesting question. We believe that people have a right to know what information is being collected about them and control over how that information is being shared," said Amber Yoo, director of communications at Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.

Facebook has by design made it impossible for people to gather data about visits to their personal profiles and views of their posts. With some variations, this has been the norm for consumer social networking sites in general over the years. Google+ is no exception.

There are signs that a substantial number of people might be interested in this. That's why rogue developers on Facebook frequently use the false promise of providing profile analytics data to dupe users into installing their applications or clicking on malicious links.

(Facebook does provide analytics data to administrators of its Pages profiles, which public figures and companies use for promotional and marketing purposes. Google+ will offer similar data for its upcoming business profiles.)

So, for now, people post photos, comments, videos and links to their social network profiles, and hope that the content will only be seen by the people it's intended for, based on the configuration of their privacy settings.

The only sure way to know that someone has viewed a post is if the person performs an action that triggers a notification, such as "liking" it or attaching a comment to it.

To serve its purpose and prevent privacy concerns among profile visitors, the analytics data shouldn't have to be very specific and granular.

To use Facebook as an example, the analytics data could be limited to identifying profile visitors in three generic ways -- the three main types of Facebook connections: friends, friends-of-friends and "everyone" else who also has a Facebook account.

Thus, if someone creates a photo album that he only wants his friends to have access to, it would be helpful to see an analytics report that reflects, say, that 15 friends saw it, but also seven friends-of-friends, which the user didn't intend to have happen.

With that report in hand, the user can go back and adjust the privacy settings for the photo album accordingly, for example. Or the analytics report could simply show that the privacy settings are set correctly and that no adjustment is needed.

How the data is collected, aggregated and presented would vary from site to site, based on their connection types and sharing mechanism design. If it increases the computational overhead for the sites, the feature could be offered as a premium option for a monthly fee. The reports needn't be generated on a daily basis -- weekly or twice-monthly might be enough to serve their purpose.

"It would make sense to have analytics data so you could tell how many people visited your profile, breaking the data down to friends, not friends, and so on. Something like that would be beneficial," said John Simpson, a consumer advocate with Consumer Watchdog whose areas of coverage include online privacy.

In addition to helping users, this functionality might also help Facebook and other social networks appease government regulators around the world that are increasingly concerned about online privacy and how it affects their citizens.

Google and Facebook remain non-committal about analytics for personal social network profiles, so it remains to be seen if this is a feature whose time has come or an idea that will never become a reality.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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