Neighborhood social networks and the importance of privacy

I just read a Business Week article titled “Social Networking Goes Niche“. I loved reading it because it validates the eNeighbors model of neighborhood social networking. It even goes on to say that advertisers will pay more to advertise on sites like eNeighbors with greater targeting ability.

What I really liked reading about though is the evolution of social networking and the greater need for privacy controls over your personal information because eNeighbors has aggressively pursued privacy for our users (almost) from the beginning.

I’d like to think that I’m a visionary, but I’m far from it. It’d be great to claim that I knew privacy would be really important for social networking sites, which is why I built it into the eNeighbors app, but really, I just let my customers tell me.

The first 10 neighborhood websites that we built were stand alone sites that included a public and and private side. Approximately 70% of the information was publicly available. It’s a good thing that we didn’t commit to this approach because it turns out that not everybody wants this.

Our customers were vocal about their concerns over information about their neighborhood being made publicly available. One by one, we started to move things behind login. First it was the social event photos of their kids at the Easter Egg Hunt, and then they wanted financial information behind login, when finally they asked, “Why don’t you just put everything behind login?”

So we did.

What a great decision that was. It not only answered the privacy issue, but also made things more exclusive, creating greater interest from the neighborhood. (What’s behind that login screen anyway?) Early indications are that this is helping to increase adoption rates (the number of homes registered in a community).

But I digress.

Privacy and information control will make or break niche social networks. If we weren’t able to assure our customers that their information will be kept private, I don’t think we would see the registration numbers that we do. At MySpace, you can hide behind an alias in a sea of 100+ million users, but in smaller social networks where you might actually run into people you meet online, it’s necessary to have control over what information you share with others.

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