Privacy Anecdotes Trump Data at CES

CIO.com blogger Constantine von Hoffman says a group of young panelists who spoke about online privacy at CES isn't representative of generation Y as a whole. Here's why.

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Even though I have never been to CES–that’s not a complaint–I know it is nothing more or less than thousands of shiny sales pitches parked in one place. If you want news about new products, this is the place to go. However, if you want information about other things–say, what people think–maybe not so much.

That’s because CES does things like pass off the opinions of six people as though they were representative of anything:

“A group of consumer panelists shared their candid thoughts on online privacy during a tell-all panel discussion on Generation Y and digital media at CES. Six extremely articulate young adults ages 18 to 28 fielded questions from moderator Xavier Kochhar and the audience about their social media preferences and attitudes.”

The conclusions:

  1. This generation grew up exposing their lives on the Internet.
  2. This has made them more aware of privacy issues.

The first is clearly inarguable, the second is where I think the group isn't all that representative. Consider:

“Tess, like Jordan, is dutiful in managing her Facebook privacy settings.”

That alone makes it a minority report.

There’s also the fact that they’re on a panel at CES. I am positive all six of these people are smart, thoughtful and pay attention to their online behavior. Who else would you want answering people’s questions? Who else would be less representative of the general population?

Another problem with the panelists’ answers is that they support the oft-repeated claim that privacy is the number one issue for Internet users. That claim is based on a lot of (well-done) interviews. However, here’s the trouble with using opinion surveys on something like this: Behavior doesn’t always match stated opinion. Even when it does the hugely different definitions of what privacy means makes the behavior itself questionable.

In 2009, researchers published a study in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication about Facebook users’ awareness of privacy issues and what they actually did about it. More than 90 percent of the people said they were familiar with Facebook’s privacy issues and 77 percent said they restricted their profiles through the site’s privacy settings. However,

“Only 69 percent of the respondents indicated that they had actually changed the default privacy settings and about half reported that they restricted their pro?le so that ‘only friends can see it.' Importantly, the de?nition of ‘friends’ may be different in this case, as the relative majority of users (38 percent), have over 300 friends, followed by 24 percent with 200–300 friends and 18 percent with 100–200 friends. Additionally, 10 percent reported that they accept ‘anybody’ as a friend, 37 percent accept people ‘heard of through others,’ and 52 percent only accept people they personally know. Furthermore, over 90 percent of the respondents signed up under their full real name and included their gender, date of birth, and hometown. This same percentage of respondents also uploaded a picture of themselves as well as additional pictures of friends, family, pets, etc. Four-?fths of the participants speci?ed interests, favorite TV shows, music, and movies, ?eld of study, schools attended, and e-mail address on their online pro?le. About one-third provided speci?c contact information, such as phone number, address, and number of their house/dorm and room.”

If you paid really close attention to the CES panel you might have noticed the same thing:

“Eighteen-year-old Jordan (there were three Jordans on the panel), who loves Tumblr and comic books, said the debacle compelled her to continue to avoid Instagram, which she wasn't really using before the incident.”

Jordan is so outraged that she isn’t going to use Instagram–which she already wasn’t using–but she will go on using Tumblr, a service with an EULA that says it owns everything posted on the site.

So here are two things to remember about all this:

  • The plural of anecdote still isn’t data.
  • Opinions are useful but it’s what people do that really counts.
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