Return of the Guru

Privacy vs. Exhibitionism: Why Social Media are Dangerous

Ara Trembly
Insurance Experts' Forum, January 6, 2011

Football fans in the New York area have of late been alternately entertained and perhaps disgusted by the antics of New York Jets Head Coach Rex Ryan. It seems Ryan and his wife may have thought (they neither confirm nor deny it) that it was a good idea to make a video of him admiring her naked feet and questioning her in a way that suggests sexuality and, well, things that I'd rather not think about.

Of course, their private media projects wouldn't normally concern Jets fans or anyone else at all, except that the couple apparently also had the brainwave to put that video on the Internet, where it, in essence, became public domain. Why, you might ask, would a high profile individual like Ryan (who admittedly was only an assistant coach at the time) expose his and his wife's private desires in such a public way? I've struggled with this type of question for years now in terms of similar disclosures that are seen daily on Facebook, MySpace and other social media outlets. For a while I thought that perhaps this generation just doesn't value privacy, but I have come to realize that I was thinking about it the wrong way around.

It's not that these folks don't value privacy; it's just that they place more value on publically exposing their likes, dislikes, fears, personal demons-you name it. In essence, we're talking about rampant exhibitionism that is enabled by social media outlets. No, I'm not saying that everyone on a social media site is an exhibitionist (or voyeur), but I am saying that those outlets provide tremendous opportunity and temptation to those who are exhibitionistically inclined.

After all, what does every such site encourage one to share? “What are you doing/thinking/feeling right now?” they ask. The answer, no matter what form it takes, is just another version of “Look at me!” Privacy seems to be the last thing on the minds of responders.

So how does all this relate to our world of insurance and financial services? The fact that so many people share their most personal and intimate information in a public forum is a troublesome development for insurers and providers. Regulations and laws galore make it clear that we must protect the personal information related to our customers-the same customers who may be literally be exposing such information to “friends” and “friends of friends” who just might want to use that information for illicit purposes.

For insurers who seek business opportunities in the social media sphere, then, we may easily have the spectacle of a customer who wants his personal information kept private by the insurer on one hand, while the same individual is spewing forth such data indiscriminately elsewhere. If the customer is “exposing” his own information, does that take the insurer off the hook if something bad happens related to that information? These are the kinds of questions that judges and juries will increasingly have to decide as exhibitionism battles privacy in the world of commerce and in the daily lives of many.

It seems clear, however, that for insurers, anything that looks like business should not in any way involve communications on a social networking site. Insurers and agents cannot simply pretend they are one among many “friends” of an individual. We are held to a higher standard of responsibility, both legally and ethically.

Insurers and providers who are contemplating dipping their toes (sorry, I couldn't resist) into the social media waters need to give serious thought to the role they will play in an environment where exhibitionism often takes precedence over privacy.

Ara C. Trembly (www.aratremblytechnology.com) is the founder of Ara Trembly, The Tech Consultant, and a longtime observer of technology in insurance and financial services.

Readers are encouraged to respond to Ara using the “Add Your Comments” box below. He can also be reached at ara@aratremblytechnology.com.

This blog was exclusively written for Insurance Networking News. It may not be reposted or reused without permission from Insurance Networking News.

The opinions of bloggers on www.insurancenetworking.com do not necessarily reflect those of Insurance Networking News.

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