Privacy vs. Social Networking: The Battle Begins

Ara Trembly
Insurance Experts' Forum, February 16, 2010

Many pundits, including me, have been cranking out articles, blog posts and comments regarding the carefully studied entry into the social media milieu by the insurance industry. Some of the latest developments, however, have demonstrated the wisdom of treading lightly in what might be the most enticing marketing minefield we have ever seen.

The recent launch of Google Buzz represented Google’s long-awaited foray into the social media arena, and it had people buzzing all right—buzzing like a swarm of angry killer bees. It seems users weren’t happy when Google automatically “selected” their list of friends based on their Gmail and chat activity. Not asking permission to share users’ Buzz contacts with others also struck a nerve. The users saw this as a breach of their privacy, and a high-handed misuse of their private information.

Google was quick to wipe the egg off its face and make some changes to appease its annoyed users, by giving them better blocking (as opposed to sharing) options and clarifying which of your “friends” will be shown publicly when someone pulls up your profile. Eventually, Google will get this to a point where complaints will settle down to the same level as Facebook and other social media outlets, but that level is still noticeably high.

The real issue here boils down to a definition of privacy. You would think it would be easy to know what privacy means—until you consider that privacy is a very personal matter, thus it will have many definitions. And the definitions themselves will change depending on environmental and personal relationship factors.

As social media users, we want our cake and we want to eat, too. We want to give free rein to our exhibitionistic tendencies—except, of course, that we don’t want certain people in certain situations to see us in that mode. If we had our way, we would pick and choose who could see what and when they could see it, and to a certain extent that is possible, but only to a certain extent. Most of us don’t take time to weed out the undesirables when it comes to individual postings on social networks; after all, the people who will see our writings are our “friends.” The problem is that even in the best of situations we don’t want all of our friends to see all of our dirty laundry.

Thus, we social media users will be forever griping about inappropriate sharing of information, even if it was we who shared the information in the first place. We expect those who host the media to do the job of personal filtering for us, like a mother or dad who keeps a chatty 6-year-old from blabbering about intimate and embarrassing family details (“I saw Uncle Bob wearing mommy’s dress!”). But is that really fair?

Google and other social media hosts are in this business for one reason and one reason only—to make money, and lots of it. The growing use of social media sites amply demonstrates that, in general, people want to talk about themselves and they want lots of other people to hear about it. There’s something slightly pathological about that, but site hosts are merely providing the infrastructure that allows this particular form of self-disclosure to take place. If someone does or says something abusive in that format, then the ultimate responsibility should rest with the blabbermouth, not with the host. Certainly a host should do all it can to keep things civil, but in these days of post-modern hysteria, even the definition of “civil” is a very subjective thing, indeed.

Insurance is a business that lives and dies on how well we control the vital information supplied to us by insureds. Conducting insurance business via a social networking site is akin to putting that information into the hands of the aforementioned, truthful-to-a-fault 6-year-old. Should we really be surprised when mom and dad fail to slap a hand over his mouth? I think not. 

Ara C. Trembly ( 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

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