Between the Russia investigation, Cambridge Analytica and all the other headlines criticizing Facebook, it's easy to become cynical about social networks and how they use your data. Nobody joins social networks thinking that they might get bombarded by hate speech or fake news, yet this is exactly what many users are dealing with as Congress looks into potentially regulating these companies.
A major component at the center of this controversy is your data and how it's used on social media (or even search engines). The popular opinion among pundits on both sides of the aisle is that based on recent events, these companies collect too much of your data and misuse it for the sake of turning a profit or influencing you while censoring certain viewpoints. As a result, the #DeleteFacebook movement has picked up steam with those who believe the answer is to stop giving social networks the ability to collect a rich amount of data from you.
Yet most of what's being said about how these networks collect and use your data is exaggerated. I've worked with social data for a living over the past six years and am well aware of the level of detail that these networks are able to collect from people. There are several data points such as your job history, phone number, friends' contact information, which brands you like, and so on. I could write an entire post about every data point Facebook has ever collected about its users, but personally, I've never once felt that the data I'm giving compromises my privacy or overreaches in any way.
While it's true that Facebook, Twitter and other social networks rely on advertising to make money and that they do it by giving advertisers an exhaustive amount of information on you, the "Big Brother" level of fear is an exaggeration.
Here's an example: Target knows from Facebook that you like Game of Thrones and therefore shows you an ad for GoT socks. That doesn't mean Target has also seen your embarrassing Facebook pictures from college. Advertisers are interested in aggregate data so they can target you with content on a one-to-one level without having anyone speak to you.
If you've made a purchase on Amazon based on their suggested items, this pretty much proves the point of why it's mutually beneficial for you to share data with advertisers.
However, the benefits of sharing data go beyond shopping. Recent development in technologies such as artificial intelligence and the Internet of things help make every day needs much easier than ever before.
Don't like your commute? The CTA can eventually change the frequency of its bus and train runs using sentiment analysis. For instance, an AI tool could pick up that users are frustrated by a train being overly crowded and automatically increase the frequency of trains on that route. And that same system could send a text message to commuters letting them know that there is a problem. It can then either recommend an alternative route or suggest a time they can leave work where they are less likely to encounter crowded trains or experience a delay.
Without sharing your social media data, this type of convenience will never be available. Although search history and website activity can track intentions, social media tracks the context and emotions behind those intentions.
And contrary to what you're reading in the news, sharing social media data can even help with medical research. According to recent studies, the backlash against Facebook is actually harmful for studies treating things like postpartum depression, flagging mental illnesses and other problems in which understanding triggers for a patient's emotional well-being could lead to better treatment. In fact, WIRED reported that Facebook can even help predict eating disorders among teenagers so they can get treated earlier.
The current environment of how social data is shared and used certainly needs improvement. The likes of Facebook and Twitter need to be more transparent about how the data is used and who is accessing it, as well as ensure it doesn't end up in the wrong hands.
But to #DeleteFacebook or make a conscious decision to share less on social media because you're worried a Russian troll may learn about your involvement in the Women's March isn't all that different than choosing not to fly on an airplane because it might crash. To every utility in life, there are always those who will abuse it, or small chance for error.
It's safe to practice the general rule that you shouldn't share something on social media that you wouldn't share with your next-door neighbor, but being overly cautious only benefits those trying to disrupt our lives. So don't worry so much about posting photos of your backpacking trip to Europe and share away -- your data will be just fine.