A media search consultancy view on privacy, Twitter, and social media

It’s been a funny week for privacy. First, Google launched their long-anticipated unified privacy policy, despite objections from EU lawmakers. Second, the Leveson enquiry heard evidence that Police officers were being paid to pass on “salacious gossip” to certain parts of the UK media. Third, Twitter and Datasift caused a stir by signing a deal which allowed the Reading-based company access to two years of archived Twitter data, and this can be used for market research purposes.

In some places, the Twitter deal has caused “uproar”. Datasift is a client of ours – but I would have been just as perplexed by this reaction had I never heard of them. I simply can’t see how Datasift’s deal – or the powerful research tool  that it represents – can be equated with the other two “threats”. Nonetheless, I had a meeting with someone today whose Facebook friends were “furious” about it. “Look what this terrible company is doing,” was the thrust of their message. Numerous articles have followed the same line.

Let’s quickly examine what is happening in the other two examples. First, Google are now able to screen your gmails for keywords in order that they can direct advertising towards your interests. As it happens, as the head of a media search consultancy I really don’t have a problem with this, either: I would much rather have relevant advertising than random and irrelevant advertising. Still, this is clearly a use of information that was originally intended to be private, and as such raises legitimate questions about the revision of pre-existing privacy policies.

In the second case, private information (on celebrities and high profile victims of crime) was being sold to the press by members of public bodies. This is obviously both criminal and morally wrong.

What Twitter and Datasift have agreed is neither of these things. A tweet is a publicly communicated fleeting thought. Those who tweet typically do everything in their power to attract as many followers as possible; that is, they want a large audience. For example, Twitter adherents deliberately hashtag their tweets to create and follow trends. As such, they are knowingly and deliberately placing these thoughts in the public domain.  For example, I just tweeted about the Goon Show – fully aware of the risk that I would sound very old indeed. (It was not trending.)

We have long argued that any company with a website is a media company. The truth is more profound: anyone who publishes their work is an author.  This goes for bloggers, tweeters, and YouTube posters. As authors – and film-makers, and broadcasters – down the years have found out, once you have published you lose control of your content. You may own copyright (though that is doubtful on Twitter) but the interpretation of your work becomes a matter of public right. It is one of the risks of publishing.

There is a simple test. Had they the inclination, could someone legally read and interpret your content from a publicly-accessible place? If yes, there is not a leg to stand on; there is little privacy on social media. The over-riding fact is this: if you offer an opinion in a public forum, you lose control over the way that opinion will be interpreted.

If you don’t want people to know what you think, don’t tweet.


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Martin Tripp Associates is a London-based executive search consultancy. While we are best-known for our work in the TMT (technology, media, and telecoms) space, we have also worked with some of the world’s biggest brands on challenging senior positions. Feel free to contact us to discuss any of the issues raised in this blog.