The word “privacy” is a loaded one these days. Interestingly, privacy is a topic on the minds of both librarians and social networkers. Both of these groups have faced infringements on privacy in recent years, and have reacted in different ways. If librarians want to use social media marketing as a tool, it is important to first consider the issue of privacy.

Not only are librarians charged with providing information and services to the tax-paying public, they are also charged with protecting these individuals’ right to keep their inquiries private. The ALA fiercely campaigns for the users’ right to privacy in their statement on the topic: “All users have a right to be free from any unreasonable intrusion into or surveillance of their lawful library use.”

Since the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, the United States has operated under a new standard of privacy outlined in the USA PATRIOT ACT. This act slashed the public’s right to privacy to its core. In the name of fighting terrorism, the Bush administration allowed law enforcement officials access to citizens’ private information in unprecedented ways. This affected libraries because library records were no longer protected. A law enforcement official could walk in to a library and demand access to a patron’s records without a warrant from a judge.

Librarians fought back! The ALA states that it “considers that sections of the USA PATRIOT ACT are a present danger to the constitutional rights and privacy rights of library users.” Librarians around the country rose up and fought back. Many refused to hand over records or computers, facing legal ramifications for their efforts.  Library director George Christian states “Terrorists win when the fear of them induces us to destroy the rights that make us free.”

Social networking sites are also grappling with issues of privacy, though in a different way. While library administrators are fighting to keep their patrons’ records private, social networking administrators are fighting to break down users’ privacy rights.

The nature of social networking is not private. Social networking is for sharing your information! The nuance is that it is for sharing with people of your choosing: your friends. However, administrators encourage sharing by setting their default privacy settings to the most open possible. They are trying to say that sharing your information with the world, not just your friends, is the new normal. In addition, administrators sometimes take advantage of their access to private information and share it with others, including advertising agencies (Miller 2011).

One example of this is Facebook’s Beacon feature. In 2007, Mark Zuckerberg introduced Beacon, which tracked what you purchased on participating websites (Blockbuster,, Zappos, etc.) and posted these purchases on your account for anyone to see. This occurred without your knowledge or permission, and privacy controls were extremely limited. After being sued, Facebook discontinued the feature in 2009. Zuckerberg did not give up entirely, however. He has a history of introducing shocking new features, like Beacon, which seem to violate privacy and force users to share more than what they want to. He dials the features back after the initial shock, and then slowly reintroduces them until sharing more than you originally wanted becomes the social norm. Facebook has slowly reintroduced some of Beacon’s features in a new project called Facebook Connect.

These privacy violations make users a little gun-shy about their privacy on social networking platforms. Writer and computer scientist Jaron Lanier believes they’re right to feel this way. He explains, “If you don’t pay money to be on Facebook, you are not a user. Companies pay money, they are customers, you are the product that’s sold to them.” Mark Zuckerberg understands the threat of social networkers understanding this. Any social networking site has enormous profit-making potential from advertising, but it will lose this potential if it loses the users’ trust: this is the biggest asset these companies have. A careful balance must be found between reaching potential and maintaining user trust (Miller 2011).

My next post will consider how libraries can avoid breaching patrons’ online privacy and trust while still reaching them through social media marketing. For now, let’s consider some general questions about privacy on social networking websites. Are you personally concerned about your privacy online? Do you feel that targeted ads are a violation of users’ trust? Do you think the ALA is right to decry the USA PATRIOT ACT? Are we heading towards a more open society, where privacy is a thing of the past?


Miller, C. (Producer). (4 December 2011). Mark Zuckerberg: Inside Facebook. London, England: BBC.

(Other sources linked within post)


6 responses »

  1. Mike Fluture says:

    I never really took privacy on the internet that seriously when I started using social media like Myspace and then Facebook. It wasn’t until I read articles and watched stories on the news that I realized that these sites were not as secure as they used to be.I now find myself making sure that nothing I post on any platform cannot be used to access any of my other information like financial records and other information. It is really amazing how much it has changed in only a short amount of time. Nice Work!

  2. herrinan says:

    Hi MIke! I completely agree that it can be shocking to think about how at risk your privacy is when you open yourself up to social media. Do you think that these sites are actually less secure than they used to be? Or are we just more aware of the ways in which our privacy is being undermined because of the huge amount of attention these websites get in the media now that they are so popular? Kind of a chicken and egg question, I know.

  3. If a library is using something like Facebook to market their new materials or events, is that something where privacy is a concern? The public library where I work uses social media for marketing purposes and hasn’t had a problem. No personal information is involved when posting events on Facebook. Patrons don’t generally comment on these posts and if they did, they are Facebook users, who should be fully informed about the privacy issues surrounding Facebook. I think social media is a safe marketing tool in terms of patron privacy. Personal privacy is another question.

  4. herrinan says:

    I am really referring to targeted ads when I say that marketing on Facebook can violate privacy. Advertisers can pay Facebook to access users’ (sometimes private) information in order to advertise to a specific group of people. For example, you may set your location information as private on Facebook, but if a company pays Facebook to target their ad to people who live in a certain area, Facebook will access your private information to find out if you meet the advertiser’s criteria, thus violating your privacy. Check out my next post, because I recommend that libraries do exactly what yours is doing to avoid breaching their patrons’ trust!

  5. Trista Nelson says:

    I know we are supposed to reply with a source, but I doubt I could find a source that would support my response. In regards to libraries I think target ads are a little overrated. Is it really necessary? And yes it’s a violation. The user already “likes” the library, so just use general ads to get people in the library. Let people know what’s happening in the library or maybe highlight some new purchases, but I don’t really think it’s necessary to have advertisements that may cater to their likes by using information from their records. With the ILS the library I work in uses, it wouldn’t work anyways because it has been set up not to keep records of the user’s account. Only the active checkouts are in the system. Once an item has been discharged it’s no longer attached to the user’s account. It helps because if the government comes in spouting off about how they need this, that and the other thing while quoting the PATRIOT ACT all I have to say is we don’t have it!

    • herrinan says:

      Hi Trista, thanks for your thoughts! I tackle the issue of how libraries should avoid violating privacy while still successfully using social media marketing in my next post, here. I offer solutions that are very similar to the ones you mention in your comment!

      Although I agree with you that targeted ads are not a good way for libraries to advertise, it is a legitimate question for debate because targeted ads have produced good results for libraries. Check out this study in Library Management on how one academic library created a successful, paid, targeted Facebook ad campaign. While I still believe that this is not the best route for libraries, and that it violates their users’ privacy, it is a topic for debate!

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