A Tale of Two Types of Social Networks

20th January 2016 0 Comments

A recent article by Pew Research on American privacy and information sharing behaviors brings the importance of user privacy and its impact on products involving user data into the limelight, especially for the social networks.

This issue of privacy is becoming increasingly important for users. The Pew Research study explored how Americans respond to various made-up scenarios where a respondent is offered some reward in exchange for personal data. One of these scenarios is a free social network designed for users to reunite with their high school friends. If they choose to participate, their user profile with real name and photos along with any user activities will be shared with third parties for creating advertisements that would better appeal to them. Sounds familiar? The results, drumroll, is that 51% of the respondent do not think this is acceptable. To give this number a little more context, out of the six different scenarios in the study, this scenario is the second most unacceptable scenario after sharing movement around a house with a smart thermostat. The concern for privacy on social networks is definitely real.

A tale of two types of social networks

In terms of user privacy, there are two types of social networks out there. On one hand, there are public social networks that users can easily follow anyone and the majority of the posts and content there are meant for anyone to read and share. On the other hand, there are extremely secretive social networks where private messages could disappear in a blink of an eye. From a marketer’s standpoint, the different types of social networks are effectively targeting different customer segments based on the privacy spectrum. There are always going to be people who love the open nature of public social networks that serve their purpose and needs. There are also very reclusive people who just want to connect with family and maybe a couple close friends.

We can take a closer look at who the users are for each social network and what they use them for:

Demographics – We summarized another Pew Research report that shared the demographics of each major social network in the chart below. For Twitter, the majority of the users are younger urbanites who are highly educated. Hardly surprisingly, LinkedIn users are mainly affluent professionals with at least a college degree. Instagram has a disproportionately large following of African Americans. On the other hand, people on Facebook are well represented across age, race, location, income and education level.


Use cases – The primary use cases for public and private social networks vary drastically as well. Twitter is almost synonymous to real-time news. Besides news and article sharing, Twitter is often used as a portal for filing customer complaints and promoting company materials. On the other hand, people tend to share interests, hobbies, weekend plans, preferences in general or anything you wouldn’t want your boss to see on Facebook.

A movement toward private networks

There is an emerging trend of people on social networks leaning toward higher level of privacy. I would love to take the credit for coming up with the theory, but there are already articles on this topic. As this Forbes article claims, “Snapchat’s explosive popularity is, in part, due to user demand for a more private, secure method of communication and engagement.” We start to see younger generations embracing messaging platforms like Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp over traditional social networks. Even the newest, much buzzed kid on the block, Peach, is a combination of private social network and mobile messaging app that are catered to the privacy oriented crowd.

What does it mean for social insights?

Is it game over for people who leverage data from social networks? Can we still collect and use user data going forward? It’s not all doom and gloom according to Pew Research: “people indicated that their interest and overall comfort level depends on the company or organization with which they are bargaining and how trustworthy or safe they perceive the firm to be. It depends on what happens to their data after they are collected, especially if the data are made available to third parties. And it also depends on how long the data are retained.” In other words, the social networks and product developers need to develop policies and products that obtain insights in a privacy safe way that doesn’t violate consumer trust. The clock is ticking, we need to do so before consumers give up on us completely.

Check out this Altimeter white paper to see how you can balance insights and trust.

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