The revolution continues

Social media is no longer new. Everyone and their dog is now on Facebook, and Twitter has been an everyday part of many people’s digital lives for years.

And yet, in 2011, social media appeared to exceed the expectations of even the most effusive of its advocates. During the Arab Spring uprising that started in Tunisia in January, commentators pointed to the role that social networking sites played in organising opposition.

The significance of Facebook and Twitter in overthrowing the governments of the Middle East has been overstated, but one thing is clear – the disruptive potential of social media is not spent yet.

Many organisations are still learning the ropes when it comes to interacting with customers through social media. Notable examples in 2011 include Australian airline Qantas, which invited Twitter users to describe their “dream luxury flight experience”, only to be bombarded with sarcastic complaints about its service.

Two pieces of research, published by management consultancy McKinsey and professional services firm Ernst & Young respectively, confirmed that most businesses are also failing to use social media to interact with customers. The former found that the priority for business using social media was to make marketing campaigns more effective, while the latter discovered that only 15% of consumers feel that businesses are ‘good’ at interacting with them via social media.

A similar story emerged from a study of how UK police forces have used Twitter, by Cisco researcher Jeremy Crump. The microblogging service has been hailed as an opportunity for police forces to ‘engage’ with citizens, but Crump found that “the nature of Twitter means that conversations are difficult to join. In many cases, one-way broadcasting of requests for information dominates other comment.”

Some businesses are experimenting with using Facebook as not only a marketing channel but also an ecommerce portal. In January 2011, for example, online clothes retailer ASOS set up a ‘store front’ on Facebook allowing customers to buy products without leaving the site.

However, some experts have urged businesses to consider the degree of control they are giving away by doing this. In October, Constellation Research analyst Ray ‘R’ Wang warned attendees at a conference in Paris that Facebook’s ongoing privacy disputes will become an issue if they use the site for commercial transactions. “If you have Facebook doing commerce and being the intersection of all your communications with consumers, you have to ask where that data is going,” he said.

The social media revolution vs privacy

Social networking sites collect vast quantities of personal data for their users, and in most cases it is their objective to find ways to monetise that data. Doing so without breaching some countries’ privacy laws is proving tricky for them, however, and criticism of the sites on these grounds mounted in 2011.

Facebook, the world’s largest social network, was the prime target. In October, the Irish Data Protection Commission (DPC) launched an investigation of the company following a complaint from an Austrian law student alleging that it collects more data on users than it admits to.

Max Schrems had requested that Facebook provide all the data relating to him that it possessed, as is mandated by the EU’s Data Protection Directive. He claimed that this included chat logs, friend requests, ‘de-friendings’ and photos from which Schrems had removed his tag. He filed his complaint in Ireland, where Facebook’s European data centre is located.

Following its investigation, the Irish DPC gave Facebook 41 recommendations of how it could improve its privacy practices. Among other measures, the company should make its privacy policy clearer and more prominent, it should allow users to delete more actions associated with their profile, and it should delete personal data when the purpose it was collected for has ceased, the DPC advised. Facebook agreed to implement or examine all 41 recommendations by the middle of 2012.

In November, Facebook fell foul of another European data protection regulator – this time from the German state of Hamburg, which complained about the site’s use of facial recognition technology to identify people in uploaded photographs.

The office of the Hamburg commissioner for data protection and freedom of information (HmbBfDI) has argued that this function requires a comprehensive database containing the biometric characteristics of every user. As it operates on an opt-out basis, Facebook does not have explicit consent to collect this data, it said. The investigation is ongoing.

Social collaboration

The adoption of social media-like tools for internal collaboration has been something of a slow burner so far. According to Gartner analyst Tom Austin, these social tools, which allow more decentralised, peer-to-peer communication between co-workers, often find resistance at very hierarchical organisations.

Austin has coined a ‘law’ to describe this effect: “Internal resistance to social and collaboration support initiatives
grows as an exponential function of the number of employees, where the exponent is the number of hierarchy levels in the organisation.”

One company fighting cultural resistance to social collaboration is, which placed the idea of a ‘social enterprise’ at the core of its strategy in 2011.’s social collaboration product, named Chatter, has found some enthusiastic adopters so far. Pradip Sitaram, CIO of US-based non-profit social housing concern Enterprise Community Partners, recently told Information Age that he hopes to replace email with Chatter as far as possible.

“With email, it’s the responsibility of the person who is sharing the information to make sure it gets to everyone that needs it,” he says. “With Chatter, it’s up to the individual to join the right groups and projects that give them the right information. And everyone knows what information they need to do their job.”

Another company that has adopted Chatter was more equivocal. Luke de Cock, information management innovation leader at GE’s Energy Management division, says that Chatter is a useful tool for sparking conversations between team members.

“But once a connection has been made and we start an idea, we’ll take it into our other more formal collaboration tools,” he explained. “You still need to organise things, and have a plan for what you are going to do.”

Once again, businesses enter the new year with questions yet to be answered about how they can best use social media, both internally and externally.

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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