Missing the Consumer Value of Social Media


I love Consumer Reports.   I rely on the magazine for top notch reviews.  Their testing of consumer products is unbiased and invaluable to anyone who takes both price and value seriously. I am currently looking to purchase a quality home treadmill and was pleased to see that a recent issue included a detailed report based on hands on testing and detailed consumer surveys.  But before I make a final decision, I will reach out to my Facebook social network friends for their input.  Some of them will have personal experience researching this type of purchase, others will know me and my foibles and perhaps advise that I get one that works with the new fitness apps available or a longer track so I don’t fall off while multi-tasking.

Facebook and other social media tools have empowered consumers more than any other development in many years, except perhaps for the creation of Consumer Reports itself.  Consumers have a megaphone to voice and spread their concerns about any business or product in a way that demands a reaction.  Companies dedicate special teams to follow opinions about their brands on social media and employ specialists to respond to individual concerns.

Certainly social media has its downsides.  Despite improvements in recent years, privacy controls are still not intuitive.  For years, posting online was public while email and chat were private.  Now, depending on our settings and which service we are using, our posts may be public, our pictures may be private and our location check-ins may be available to “friends of friends”.  It can get very complicated.

What’s the point of sharing with a friend of a friend? The other day I was complaining on Facebook about a new airplane baggage fee when a friend responded to commiserate.  But then she tagged her friend the travel agent who jumped in with great expert advice about how to avoid that fee.  Privacy concerns about sharing my travel plans?  In my neighborhood, folks on my block and friends of my kids know when we are on vacation.  If I forget to stop the newspaper delivery, they pick it up for me.  Don’t announce it to the general public, where some crook may scour public information for evil purposes.  But online or offline, sharing with your friends or community does far more to empower most of us than it does to create any new risks.

I was surprised therefor to see the harshly negative general view Consumer Reports took towards Facebook in the issue released yesterday.  I expected criticism of the usability of privacy controls or complaints about apps that ask consumers for more information than they need.  Facebook is aware of those issues and is working with our think tank and others on the best ways to continue to make progress ensuring that the thousands of developers who create their own consumer apps use data responsibly.  But Consumer Reports seems to be taking the view that social media sharing is by definition a bad idea, even when people are sharing with their own friends.  True, things posted privately can be further shared, but that’s the case with much of what we do online and the price for convenience we make every day when we use email to send information around the world.

Consumer Reports notes with alarm that millions of people are publicly showing support for the battles against various illnesses by publicly “liking” pages dedicated to the diseases.  I would like to urge more consumers to “like” the fights to cure and de-stigmatize disease.  And I think it is preposterous to think that if I announce that I am attending a march to raise money to fund breast cancer research that an insurer will be able to use it against me.  Are there any companies that are mistreating people for such activity? I would like Consumer Reports to find out, so I can denounce them on Facebook for my friends to read and pass on and on.

It was also surprising to see media reports alarmed at Consumer Reports finding that 13 million people were unfamiliar with Facebook privacy controls.  With 188 million users in Facebook and Canada (the regions surveyed) this means that more than 90% of users say they are familiar with the controls.  That is remarkably positive!

Certainly folks who post compromising pictures or comments, on Facebook or on blogs or anywhere public, should understand that friends, employers, colleges, prospective dates will judge you.  Do a search using Google and see what shows up.  You have a digital identity that is being used to assess you, just like the clothes you wear every day and the people you associate with form your public identity.  As more is available online, Facebook, Google and others needs to help us shape that identity to put our best self forward to those who are interested in us.  Which online services are doing the most to help consumers pro-actively shape their reputations and empower them to make smarter decisions?  That’s the Consumer Reports study that I would like to see.  But by applying a pessimistic eye towards social media in general as it conducted this survey, this month’s Consumer Reports magazine isn’t going to be a “best value” for today’s online consumer.


-Jules Polonetsky