The Social Media Blog

Your source of university social media information

Break out your tinfoil hat, you’re being watched!

Social media isn’t free.

Sure, you probably don’t pay money to maintain your social media accounts, but these services don’t exist for purely selfless reasons. In exchange for the services you get, social media companies get data that can be used to build a digital profile of who you are. This profile can then be used to allow paying advertisers to target you and may be provided to third parties, either for commercial or government data collection purposes.

This isn’t necessarily the end of the world. The majority of data isn’t used for anything particularly nefarious. In fact, a lot of data collected is either used for very mundane marketing purposes (making advertising more relevant to you) or to make your experience as a user more customised and satisfying. Provided you understand what data is being collected and how it’s used, you may be more than willing to make this exchange.

Get familiar with the terms you’re agreeing to

Obviously the most foolproof way to know the terms you’re agreeing to is to read them in full. Unless, like me, you’ve recently written a thesis on social media surveillance, you probably don’t have the time or patience to bother with this.

If you want to get the basic information without trawling through the full terms of service for every account you have, a great place to start is Terms of Service; Didn’t Read. This project aims to condense the lengthy terms of service for a whole range of digital services into easy to digest lists of positive, negative, and neutral points. For many services you can also get a letter grade indicating how well a service performs in terms of user rights.

Know when you’re being tracked

One of my favourite browser extensions is Ghostery. As well as being an incredibly useful tool for people who want to take control over what data is tracked online through the ability to monitor and block trackers, this is a genuinely interesting way to learn who’s collecting data about you and for what purposes. You might be surprised by just how wide a range of tracking takes place in day-to-day browsing, and all the different uses (from advertising to remembering data to customise your experience) that these trackers collect this for.

Stay informed about changes

It’s often tempting to just delete emails you receive from services like Facebook or Twitter, but they may contain important information about changes to privacy and data collection/retention. If you do receive an email mentioning a change to a site’s terms of service, at least take the time to skim through it, as it’s very possible you’ll need to go into your profile and make some tweaks to get your privacy right for you.

It’s also worth subscribing to sites which focus on issues around social media, such as Mashable’s social media section. They’ll cover important issues or updates and explain any consequences in simple terms, making it easier for you to know if you need to take any action.

Assume everything is public, even if it’s private

One of the easiest ways to make sure you’re in control of your data is to assume that things you share aren’t 100% private. If you’ve made yourself familiar with each service’s privacy settings, you’ll definitely have a fairly robust level of control over who sees what. Bear in mind, however, that most companies reserve the rights to change their terms at any point, and often retain some legal control over the things you share. If it’d ruin your life to have something made public, social media’s probably not the place for it.