About a month ago, a number of my friends on Facebook started cutting and pasting a post that includes the following text:

"As of <fill in date and time>. Eastern standard time, I do not give Facebook or any entities associated with Facebook permission to use my pictures, information, or posts, both past and future. By this statement, I give notice to Facebook it is strictly forbidden to disclose, copy, distribute, or take any other action against me based on this profile and/or its contents. The content of this profile is private and confidential information."

The post went on to state a bunch of irrelevant laws or international agreements such as the Rome Statute. For those of you unfamiliar with the Rome Statute, its full name is Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and establishes the International Criminal Court. It is a treaty, not a law, and concerns itself with weighty subjects such as genocide and war crimes. No matter what one thinks about Facebook, it’s hard to imagine any way it might use a post that would qualify as genocide.

Like chain letters, these posts resulted from a hoax. The post did nothing to protect anyone and is sheer superstition. The fact that intelligent, educated and professional people spread these around reveals several things about the social network services that they regularly use.

Most People Don't Know How Intellectual Property and Contract Law Works

Yes, we own our own writing, photos and ideas — but only until we agree not to. That is exactly what we do when we agree to Facebook’s (or Twitter’s, LinkedIn’s, Instagram’s, etc.) terms of service. We also usually agree to these kinds of things when signing all those forms at a job’s onboarding with Human Resources. We sign an agreement wherein we give up our rights to complete privacy and our ideas in return for something we want, like money or the chance to vent our political opinions publicly.

The key concept here is “agreement.” These posts, besides being legalese nonsense, are unilateral declarations. A simple declaration doesn’t obligate another entity, be it a corporation or a person, to comply with the text of the declaration. Note that those disclaimers that you find at the bottom of emails sometimes, claiming that the email is to be kept confidential, are not binding either unless you have an existing agreement with the sender. If your company and the sender’s company do have a non-disclosure agreement (there’s that word again) in place, then it might have weight if the communication falls within the scope of the agreement. Otherwise, they are meaningless.

Pre-Internet days, it didn’t matter if anyone but attorneys, creative people and certain business people had any grasp of how copyright worked. In the age where anyone can share their ideas and pictures immediately, just about everyone needs at least a cursory understanding of how intellectual property and contracts work. Marketers who repost content from customers best keep this in mind. Your customers might see your repost as theft, not repurposing what they consider their property. The legal subtleties will allude even otherwise well-informed consumers.

Consumers Don’t Know How Internet Companies Use Their Data

Hoaxes prey on misconceptions. One major misconception that's abundantly clear is how people think their personal data is used by consumer Internet services. For the most part, consumer Internet sites use the content that others place on the site in aggregate. First, data is de-identified, or stripped of identifying information. It is then combined with data from millions of other posts and collapsed into a set of statistics or topics regarding similar groups of people. This information is then either sold to marketers in order to target ads or to mine for insights into groups of people. Individual content is not sold directly to customers of these sites.

For marketers, it is important to understand that even sophisticated prospects may find it creepy when you serve up an ad that seems to match their interests closely. The same is true for personalized offers and content. Consumers think that marketers are spying on their posts in order to deliver content.

Consumers Mistrust Internet Services, Even as They Continue Using Them

There've been enough news stories about data breaches and government spying to seed mistrust of all kinds of business, but especially Internet services. These declarations of privacy and copyright, though, are obviously not about Internet services’ response to external threats. The posts, instead, indicate a deep distrust with how the companies use customer's data themselves.

However, this mistrust is not enough to overcome the value consumers get from the products. If the value did not compensate for their fear of Internet services, they would leave and stop using them. At present, there doesn’t seem to be a wholesale abandonment of Facebook or other Internet social sites.

Another reason that consumers keep with services they mistrust is that they view them like utilities. They are important in the way electricity or voice communications are. In the absence of government oversight, consumers feel that they need to assert what they see as their rights, even if the method is misguided. The only way to insure total privacy is to close down an account and disconnect from the social network. Consumers know this and are unwilling or unable to imagine life without social Internet services.

Consumers, intelligent and educated consumers with professional jobs in business, appear to have a profound mistrust of the very Internet services that they use all the time. They post absurd comments like the one above in the hopes that it will provide some protection from the misuse of what they feel is private communication. The irony is that this mistrust is felt most acutely for services whose purpose is to enable sharing of content. Some of the consumer suspicion comes from a lack of understanding as to Facebook's practices or companies similar, and the behavior of a few bad actors. Their “solution” is equally born from ignorance — ignorance of the law.

Marketers must take this mistrust into account so as not to appear creepy. Consumers may even (erroneously) feel that certain types of advertising is illegal. These are not attributes of a profitable long-term relationship with a customer. Marketers should proceed with caution when using personalization in advertising on social networks and other Internet services. This is a case where being incredibly on-target might end up working against you in the end.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License Title image by  hillary h