Why NewNet Companies Must Shoulder More Responsibility

In the minds of many NewNet entrepreneurs, last week’s conviction of three Google executives for violating the privacy of a boy bullied on YouTube, feels like a frenzied mob banging down Frankenstein’s door with pitchforks and burning torches. Sure, the Italian courts are maddeningly capricious and out of sync with the web. But dismissing the case as some crazy outlier also skips past some real problems at the heart of many NewNet companies.

The YouTube bullying case is just one of a string of (usually minor) controversies that seem to be constantly pinging around the NewNet as it grows: whether it’s Google Buzz’s privacy settings, worries about Foursquare users being burgled or the odd malevolent Twitter worm, the list of issues just keeps getting longer. On the surface, these incidents may not seem to have much in common, but underneath they’re all linked by a deep social anxiety about unregulated web services.

NewNet services wield enormous amounts of power, whether they recognize it or not.

First, users trust them with personal information like names, email addresses and other pieces of crucial identity data. Once they start using a service, they also hand over highly sensitive things like photos, conversations, movements, videos and relationships. And finally, when those steps are complete, the social web allows them to transmit that information without barriers — to the point where reaching millions of people is just as easy as sending a private message to a close friend. (In fact, the changing approaches to privacy often make it easier to broadcast by default).

And while services (like YouTube) can argue that they are simply dumb pipes — what the British call the “mere conduit” defense — they should also realize that it is not in their interests to propagate behavior that could land them, or their users, in court. Following just a few basic tenets can help improve life for users, avoid controversy — and, therefore, ultimately benefit the company.

For starters, understand how users act in the real world. Foursquare assumed that its fans were all pulling in the same direction, not realising that tribal enmities are a big part of social identity for the young, outgoing crowd it serves. It was only when users started abusing its open tagging system to call each other douchebags that those real-world problems started slipping into the game. You can’t stop trolls from behaving badly all the time, but you can avoid giving them the tools: Foursquare has altered the settings to make it harder to fall prey to casual abuse.

You should also understand how good design is important in encouraging users to behave sensibly. Facebook’s privacy settings are incredibly granular — but they are also hidden under layers of complexity and obscurity. That leaves people sharing more than they intended to, which might benefit your business in the short term, but could damage your reputation, irritate users – and even anger regulators.

It’s also worth investing time and energy in building your community — and making it easy for them to flag bad behavior. YouTube would need thousands of staff to vet the videos that get uploaded to the site every hour, but with the right incentives and encouragement users themselves can self-regulate very successfully. YouTube offers some levels of self-regulation, but clearly not enough for the Italian courts. On Craigslist, however, spammy postings don’t usually last long, because everybody is invested in keeping them out. Plus, the Craigslist flagging system is incredibly simple: YouTube and its NewNet brethren should follow that lead.

There are plenty of reasons to remain providers of dumb pipes, but it’s the smart companies that take on the challenge — and reap the rewards. It was Franklin Roosevelt who first wrote, “great power involves great responsibility”: for the NewNet, that means understanding the influence you wield and caring for your users. After all, if users are happy, everybody wins.

Question of the week

How would you encourage users to make your service better?
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