Last month, Google was forced by a New York judge to hand over the personal details of a user of its Blogger service to someone who wished to sue the blogger in question for defamation. In a series of posts, fashion model Liskula Cohen was described by fashion student Rosemary Port as a “psychotic, lying, whoring … skank”. Whilst Google at first refused to hand over her identity, it agreed to give Cohen’s lawyers her email address after being ordered to do so by the Manhattan Supreme Court. Port is now suing Google for $15m claiming it failed in its duty to protect her privacy.
While it’s interesting that the original lawsuit was launched because the offending blog post turned up in a search for Cohen’s name (it doesn’t anymore, the blog’s been deleted), a more interesting issue is the one it raises in regard to who owns what in the social media space, or indeed on the wider Web. Port felt that Google had a responsibility to refuse to hand over her details to the courts but, as has been seen time and time again, search engines will not break local laws if pushed to do so. By signing up to Blogger, Port had essentially given Google ownership of her personal information.
So what does any of this have to do with social media, and why should anyone who manages to get through the day without calling anyone else a skank care? Because just as Google ‘owned’ Port’s data, and handed it over when pushed, it proves most social media profiles aren’t really yours, whether you’re an individual or a brand. This means that if you’re planning to use a social media platform, whether it be a blog or a social network, to promote yourself or your brand, you need to consider a few things.
Whilst I advise most clients to ‘fish where the fish are’ when it comes to social media, sometimes it makes more sense to try to replicate or even recreate a social network than to invest too heavily in building up an audience on a 3rd party network. If, for instance, your business is based on advertising, why on earth would you want to spend any time creating content that puts dollars in another business’ bank? Of course some companies do, and for very good reasons, but it’s certainly something that ought to be considered.
And even if you’re not relying on advertising dollars, and are using social media to drive value to your brand in other ways, there might be an argument that you could still be risking a loss.
Imagine that you spend hundreds of man hours building up an audience on a social network, as well as thousands of dollars creating content for the profile, as well as on marketing to drive awareness of it. Now imagine that an entirely new social network comes along, everyone gets bored of the one you’ve invested so much time in, and your audience more or less disappears overnight. It might sound extreme, but it’s happened (to a certain extent) before and is almost certain to happen again, because the cost to consumers of switching social networks is nil so the only thing stopping them is fashion and friends.
A rumour recently swept the digital village that is London, suggesting that one of the major social networks was about to close the profiles of any brand not spending sufficient money on its advertising options. The rumour proved to be false, but as more and more networks continue to struggle to monetize their traffic, it may well come to pass. After all, whereas a search engine without major brands in its results might seem strange to a user expecting to be able to find them there, on social networks, where consumers aren’t looking to be sold to, that’s unlikely to be the case.
And what about if you don’t even use social media profiles, but just have similar tastes in back-end operations? If your business lives in the clouds, then it’s entirely at the mercy of people over whom you have no control. So if your provider goes off-line, or loses all your data? Tough luck.
And finally, as the recent Orwellian example of Amazon deleting copies of novels by, errr, George Orwell from its Kindle devices show, you don’t even have to be on the Web in order to be prone to the issues of digital ownership. The fact that Amazon was probably right in doing what it did (if incredibly naive not to publicise and explain its actions more) doesn’t really matter.
Nor does the fact that Rosemary Port sounds like a rather nasty individual (if I hadn’t been raised better, I might even describe her as as sounding like a [blank], but would never do such a thing for fear of a defamation lawsuit) and that the Web could probably do with a little less anonymous agression, as frequently as Paul Carr argues.
All that matters is that anyone investing time and resources in building a digital brand (or literary collection) understands that these days possession counts for approximately nine tenths of nothing.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.