By now every business owner should understand the potential publicity gains that can be achieved through effectively run social media campaigns and properly managed social media pages.
Users, however, are rightly concerned about the potential for what they consider to be their private information to be abused, exploited, or just plain spied upon by marketers and other interested parties.
Those marketers who do pry into personal information of social media users are quick to point out the irony of social media users complaining about the use and collection of information that the users themselves voluntarily decided to make public.
Privacy by degrees
The challenging problem that the marketers face with this logic is that privacy isn't considered by most people to be a binary value, where there is either absolute privacy or absolute disclosure.
Most people believe there are degrees of privacy, and that corporations should have an ethically based respect for the privacy of individuals.
Many of the corporations, on the other hand, take the view that information is a commodity, and their duty is to make as much profit as possible using whatever commodities are available to them.
Social media providers have compounded this complication by not being fully transparent about what information is collected, how it is collected, who it is shared with, and why it is shared.
Some social media users are making use of the social media sites as a personal publicity platform to generate fame for themselves with no regard for privacy whatsoever.
The typical social media user, especially in the more mature demographics, is a very different kind of person. These users tend to have an expectation that what they share online with their friends and family is only supposed to be viewed by the people they are choosing to share with.
It's all too confusing
Social media users do indeed have some right to feel indignant about inappropriate use of and access to what they regard as private social sharing. Those who do the accessing don't think there's anything inappropriate about what they're doing.
The cause of this conflict can be traced to the differences between the way data sharing practices are described by social media providers to users and data buyers.
All social media users agree to privacy policies when they sign up for social media accounts. These policies can be very vague about exactly what data is shared, how it is shared, and who it is shared with. The policies are also not usually written in plain language that the average user can easily understand.
All this before we even consider the problems that are thrown up by children using social media and the serious ethical tangle that is associated with the exploitation of their information.
The law in most countries takes the view that minors can't actually accept privacy policies or "terms and conditions" because they don't know what they are agreeing to. If the law was to be actually just, it would also recognise that most adults have no idea what they are agreeing to, either.
There is no privacy
The cold hard truth is that social media does not provide users with what could reasonably be considered as real privacy, even when the opportunity exists to apply "privacy settings" to individual items of content. These privacy settings are an illusion, providing the users with a false sense of security.
The expectation raised is that when I share photos and videos of my birthday party with family and friends, adjusting the privacy settings appropriately, that only my family and friends will have access to the content.
The reality is that in addition to family and friends, the data sharing partners of the social media provider also have access to the content. This is something the average user is not taking into consideration, and they may be sharing much more than they intend.
We could easily view this as harmless, but is it? It all depends on how the information is used, and by whom. The fact that social media companies aren't fully disclosing that information to the users is the primary cause of concern to those users.
Caught in the middle
In addition to individual social media users, there is a special category of users who are business operators using the social media to connect with their customers. Let's ignore for the moment that most of them are doing that wrong, and focus on the topic at hand.
These ordinary business owners are not in the same group as the data exploiters. They don't usually have the budget for that kind of activity, nor the time to indulge in it.
They are awkwardly caught in the middle between the data exploiters and the individual social media users. They want the publicity and interactivity with customers that social media can provide, but they also have some duty of care to protect their customers.
When a customer communicates with a company on social media, they may not fully understand the public nature of their communication. It can also have disastrous consequences for the business operator, unless great skill is employed in managing the social media account.
Negative publicity on social media is the most dangerous kind of publicity a company (or even an individual) can sustain. It is notoriously damaging.
The delicate balance between publicity and privacy should therefore be of even more concern to business owners than it is to the public in general. Your business is possibly even more vulnerable to privacy lapses than the individual users are.
The hidden danger
The true danger of social media for some business owners is even greater than the problem posed by negative publicity or failing to adequately protect the privacy of their customers.
The form this danger takes is in the way social media can be used for collaborative communications. The illusion is that online conversations occur inside a closed loop and can be expected to be private.
Sharing trade secrets or other important information in a social media conversation could potentially lead to serious problems. The one and only remedy for this, besides not using social media for the purpose at all, is to employ encryption methods such as OTR.
It hardly needs saying that the typical social media user is not going to be readily adept at integrating encryption software into their social media access tools (web browsers, messaging clients, and so on).
Protecting your business from social media strife
Disconnecting your business from social media entirely in the manner of JD Wetherspoon is probably taking things too far. Social media does have value for your business and does provide some useful facilities.
Staying out of trouble with the public is the number one concern for businesses that make legitimate use of social media to promote themselves, connect with customers, and help drive more traffic to their main website.
You can keep your business from running into trouble by always being totally upfront in your online communications, treating people with respect and courtesy no matter how they try to provoke a negative response, and making sure customers know you respect their privacy.
Avoid discussing anything in team conversations that would create problems if it were to become public knowledge or be intercepted by somebody who could exploit it for their own gain, or use encryption (always a good idea anyway).
Protecting your own privacy
Apart from your business social media use, you may also have personal social media accounts. It was already mentioned earlier that there is actually no privacy at all on social media, even when it is strongly implied that there is. You therefore need to be exceptionally careful about what personal things you share online.
People are astonishingly open in sharing all kinds of things online, from their political opinions to their health problems. They're also very willing to post photos of their kids, their pets, their possessions...
What you may not realise is that each of these individual snippets can be cobbled together into a large mosaic, revealing almost everything about you in ways that would probably make you feel very uncomfortable if you were aware of the entire content of it.
Avoiding sharing personal content is the surest way to protect your privacy, but this is not compatible with how most people live their lives. What you can do is to always be vigilant about your privacy settings and to never upload something that would make you feel uncomfortable if it were displayed publicly.
Privacy settings don't really give you true privacy, but they are still better than no control at all. The information people can extract from what you post online can be alarming.
One example is to identify your location. This is easily demonstrated by the I Know Where Your Cat Lives website. It all just gets creepier from there.
It's worth taking the small amount of time to tighten up your online privacy, and pause before you hit that upload button.