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Critical community element: Trust

February 29, 2012

Earlier this month, two social networking companies drew criticism for two different reasons, but both from a common root cause: a lack of disclosure. Why all the fuss?

Let’s start by examining the lesser of the two cases and consider Pinterest. The media darling-social network is known for providing an inviting place for “pinners” to collect images they find inspiring. Typically the “pins” link to a dress, recipe or favorite book and the click-through destination is set to the site where the image, sometimes a product for purchase, can be found.

However, it was recently publicized that Pinterest is modifying click-through links with their own affiliate tracking code. If someone clicks the link and ultimately buys the product, Pinterest gets a small percentage of said purchase. This discovery angered some Pinterest users and caused a significant social media backlash.


Meanwhile, offender #2, Path, is a popular mobile social network on which users share data about their lives and families through photos and location-based check-ins on Apple and Android devices.

In a significant privacy-related kerfuffle, Path was caught red-handed uploading users’ entire phonebook to Path’s servers without having or even requesting the user’s permission. The contact list upload occurred on iOS devices, including iPhones and iPod Touches; while on Android, permissions were opt-in only.

The most notable event of the Path fallout was when CEO Dave Morin, via a blog comment, denied wrong-doing and said the use of the contact list was central to the app’s utility to the end user.

The following day Path deleted all address book information collected via the iPhone app, apologized and updated their app requiring permission to conduct this activity. All this in assumed response to Path’s biggest investor, Mike Arrington (founder of Techcrunch), publicly urging Path to do so.

What’s the lesson here?

If you are an organization building a community that will collect user-data for any reason – even if you can’t imagine it being controversial – you need to disclose it. I’ve seen many organizations, both for-profit and otherwise, try to skate by in these circumstances with an ‘it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission’ mentality, and it always comes back to haunt them.

Path’s choice to upload a user’s entire contact list to their servers eroded a critical element in a vibrant community: trust. Knowing the Path administrators conducted themselves so sneakily, how good can you feel about telling them where you are right now, or sharing a picture of your child doing something adorable? Users are building the value of the community by sharing intimate aspects of their lives, and they expect their contributions to be honored and protected.

How do you handle disclosure in your company or organization? Have you ever had a situation where you’ve been taken to task for not disclosing? Let’s discuss.

Photo: girls via Quasic

Critical community element: Trust

Charlie Brown

CEO & Founder

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