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How much should you trust social networking information?

I never really thought about this question until about a month ago when I got a strange phone call from a a collection agency wanting to know when I pay my bill to a major network services provider.  Naturally, my answer was I don’t do business with that company and I don’t owe anyone any money.  My new friend persisted. Aren’t you Judith Hurwitz — yes, I replied, I am guilty as charged. Then she wanted to confirm that I was indeed the CEO of a company called Changepond Technologies.  Now this was when I stopped pleading guilty. No, I answered, I haven’t even heard of a company called Changepond and I am therefore, not their CEO.

Now, how would this my friend assume that I would be president of a company I never heard of?  She did what we all do; she did a google search and on one of the “social networking sites” called Spoke, it lists me as the CEO of Changepond.  Imagine my surprise (especially since I never got a salary).

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Judith Hurwitz’s Professional Profile

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Judith Hurwitz, President Judith Hurwitz was a driving force in the distributed computing movement and was one of the first software industry analysts to recognize and write about important technology changes such as client/server computing, systems and applications management, and e-business practices. In 1992, she founded Hurwitz Group, a software research and consulting organization that quickly became an industry leader. Clients included most of the top technology firms, including IBM, Hewlett Packard, BMC, Compuware, BEA, Tivoli, Computer Associates, and Microsoft. The organization also assisted a long list of start up companies in their transition from technology idea to business product. Judith also held senior positions at Apollo Computer, John Hancock Life Insurance Company, Patricia Seybold’s Group, and International Data Corporation. Judith’s expertise is widely recognized, and she is frequently quoted in major publications. She is currently a columnist for CIO Online and has recently written articles for BioITWorld Magazine. She has authored hundreds of articles and reports, been a frequent keynote speaker at major industry events, and serves on the advisory boards of several corporations. Hurwitz holds a BA and Masters degree from Boston University.

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So, this was what I saw. Needless to say, I was a little surprised. How could this happen? It is easy to understand. First, the company had a local U.S. sales office in the same building that our offices are in. In addition, because we took over the suite of offices that Changepond’s U.S. office had been in, we inherited their old phone number.
Now, you might be asking, so why is this significant.  Basically, people rely increasingly on these social networking sites to find people they want to do business with or just connect with someone you used to know.  These sites serve a valuable purpose.  However, there is a dark side based on identity management.  Many of the sites that help you find people do not have a team of researchers collecting information. Nor do they wait until everyone takes the time to fill in the information about themselves.  You really can’t blame these sites. Until there is critical mass, no one will depend on the site.  Since most of these sites sell ads in order to survive, getting to critical mass is imperative.
Therefore, we are seeing lots and lots of these social networking sites filled with inaccurate information.  Much of this is benign.  Who cases if the wrong president is listed on a social networking site?  However, what happens when that company owes money and the collection agency goes after you? What happens if the company gets a bad reputation and the market thinks that it is your responsibility?  What happens if you are looking for a new job and the personnel office does a background check and notices that you are associated with a company that you never put on your resume?
Our natural inclination is to assume that if we find information through a search, it must be accurate.  In the case I mentioned earlier, the social networking site probably used some sort of automated tool to match company addresses and phone numbers with individuals.  Not a bad methodology to get started but somewhat dangerous.
Now, getting back to my new found presidency of Changepond.  I decided to take some actions to fix the situation.  Here are the three actions I took — I’ll call them the three dead ends:
Dead end #1.   I called the company’s new U.S. headquarters and asked to speak to the person in charge. I was connected to voice mail and guess what, the lovely voice suggested that I could contact the individual by calling the phone number our group had acquired. There was no human that could come to the phone.
Dead end #2.  I sent an email to an executive of this company and told him my problem. He was shocked and promised to look into the situation immediately. I sent a follow up email and this time I got no response.
Dead end #3. I sent an email to support email for the social networking site and asked them to fix this problem.  I never did get an answer and the information is still there.
I am not telling you this story so that you will feel sorry for me.  I want to tell you this because this will become an increasingly difficult problem that will cause unanticipated problems for the social networking community.  I am sure that there are hundreds and perhaps thousands of people who are impacted by inaccurate information.  But I think it is important to put a spotlight on this issue.  We need to hold these companies accountable to the quality of the information that they make public.  If you have had similar experiences, I would like to hear from you.  Start by answering the poll:
  1. December 9, 2008 at 3:30 pm

    ouch. maybe you should talk to the collection agency; usually when a company turns over a bad debt to a CA, all correspondence must pass through the CA. in any case, thanks for raising an important issue; I, for one, will pay a bit more attention in the future!

    • December 9, 2008 at 4:11 pm

      I have indeed spoken to the collection agency. This is something that we all have to become more aware of. I wish there was a way to report these issues without all the runaround.

  2. December 9, 2008 at 3:53 pm

    I had a similar experience with scrambled online social-media/profile data. Mine involved a call from a header hunter looking for another Charles Allen. The caller found my phone number within an auto-compiled profile similar to the one you mentioned on Spoke. The profile had a bit of me and a bit of the other Charles Allen — a former VP and founder of Webmethods. We had much in common, beyond the name. We had both spent some time in Australia, had both lived in the DC metro area, and had both started businesses involving XML. The names of the business were somewhat similar.

    “Mashups” will definitely lead to these identity mixes. I think the lesson for people like recruiters and others using social media to inform consequential business decisions is to use it for “discovery,” not drawing conclusions. For things like recruiting, or in the case you describe, addresses, work history, affiliations, or other information that you pick up from social media is at best a starting point for further verification.

    What annoyed me about the encounter with the headhunter is that while the information in the single social media site was scrambled, it is not difficult at all to discern that Charles Allen, founder of WebMethods, and I are not the same person. The recruiter could have established this by investing 30 secs or so in further research from public sources.

    I have two middle-school age children. It is constantly drilled into their heads by their teachers that they need to apply some process and rigor to research before they accept anything they find on the Web as a fact. Business people using information from social media would be wise to heed the same advice.

  3. December 18, 2008 at 10:55 am

    Check out the trust index of the social networks at http://www.trust-index.com

    Trust-index

    You can add any item you want to be rated by people all over the world. Express your trust, and check out what others think about.

    • December 18, 2008 at 4:16 pm

      I think this approach is a good one. Another source for online commerce sites is one called Bizrate.com. But it is hard to have a comprehensive way to determine the level of trust you should have on a particular site.

  4. December 29, 2008 at 3:16 am

    The Social networking websites and Community,s networking Blogs are increasingly important in our lives, Just Try to find the Best one for your Business and Just Try to get into!
    Hope you have fun, But dont hope they will have any kind of good Custumer Services!

    • December 29, 2008 at 2:49 pm

      Naturally social networks are important and will continue to grow. However, the point that I am making is that they are not always accurate. Many of these sites use algorithms to match addresses and phone numbers with individuals to build their networks. Therefore, the information is often false or out of date. Since many of these social network sites have few humans involved, it is impossible to correct the information. Now, in many cases, this is harmless. However, imagine if you are being considered for a new position and the HR department does a web search of your name. They come up with a social networking site that has you listed as an officer of a company that you never even heard of. Will they assume that the site is wrong or will they question your credentials? I don’t know the solution to the problem but it is not a frivolous issue and needs to be fixed.

  5. March 12, 2009 at 2:54 pm

    Trust is an ongoing issue with social networking. Part of facebooks success is it’s high trust. Starting of exclusive and always requireing real names to be used. I’m forwarding this link to our team of web programmers.

    Thanks & Take Care
    Jon the Social Software Development Guy

  6. March 22, 2009 at 11:42 am

    Interesting (and a bit shocking) topic!

    Trust and trustworthiness do play a major role within social networking sites, and the results of my MSc. thesis suggest that the self-posted information and identities on social networking sites are perceived as authentic. As such, users seem to trust the social networking information greatly. Consequently, stories like this can indeed experienced by a lot of users.

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