Why millennials don’t care about WhatsApp sharing their data

by Keith Andrew

Ask Google for the definition of a “millennial”, and it will give you the rather literal description of someone who reached adulthood in or after the year 2000. The turn of the century is a rather hollow landmark, however. What sets millennials apart is much bigger than that: they’ll be the first generation to live their entire adult lives in the internet age.

Why millennials don’t care about WhatsApp sharing their data

And as software giants have spent the past decade discovering, there’s a fundamental difference between how someone who lived before the internet thinks about privacy, and how someone who has grown up alongside the internet thinks about the same thing.

Back in August, the media devoted column inches aplenty to news that WhatsApp was to start sharing user data with its parent company Facebook, in order to offer “better friend suggestions” and “more relevant ads”, among various other benefits. “For example, you might see an ad from a company you already work with, rather than one from someone you’ve never heard of,” WhatsApp explained in a blog post.

For the tech press, the move didn’t come as a surprise; it was all but inevitable once the social networking giant picked up the messaging app in 2014. For the mainstream media, however, panic buttons were pressed. For them, the story tapped into the fundamental fear that their messaging apps and social media were becoming tools for corporate data collection.millennials_texting_

But what about the fabled millennials? Were they quite as concerned as the media wanted them to be? “Personally, I’m not bothered about my data being passed around,” offers Ashley Jones, co-founder of Europe’s largest “influencer agency” Social Chain. The company, which is based in Manchester, utilises platforms such as Facebook and Twitter for mammoth marketing campaigns. In short, it shapes what huge numbers of people see and how they see it, day in day out.

Not only does Jones fall firmly into the millennial demographic, he’s also spent much of his career helping to guide exactly how his fellow millennials feel about the world around them. “I think for me, moves like this are going to make my life easier,” he continues. “If my ‘profile’ is easily accessible, and my behaviours, then surely advertising towards me will in the future be more targeted to solving the problems I’m actually facing.”

Jones realises, however, that not everyone in his life is quite as ready to welcome their data being shared. “My friend, who isn’t in the industry, warned me to turn something off in the settings as ‘WhatsApp is now sharing your data with Facebook’, so maybe the general consumer will have an issue with it for two minutes, but past that I don’t think they’ll have an issue.”millennials_facebook

What Jones describes is a reluctant acceptance by those less tech-savvy than him that, like it or not, ‘this is just how things are’. Many older generations believe that user data being passed around is something they should be wary of, but other than boycotting technology altogether, they’re not exactly sure how to stop it. For Steve El-Sharawy, head of innovation at online community-management specialist EzyInsights, the reaction to the WhatsApp data-sharing story was split into two distinct groups, with older generations  being “vaguely aware that sharing ‘too much’ data might potentially be bad”, without being exactly sure why.

“We’ve become used to our supermarkets knowing more about us than our parents, basically,” he continues. “With WhatsApp, unless you start getting cold calls via the app from salespeople, it’s unlikely any ads will have a dramatic effect on how people use it.”

“We’ve become used to our supermarkets knowing more about us than our parents”

The millennials don’t just tolerate such changes, however. In some cases, they positively embrace them. “Millennials are natively privacy-savvy compared to any previous generation – more in control of what they share and with whom,” adds El-Sharawy. “The amount of inherent sharing in their lives has forced this to be an issue for them. They understand the difference between sharing Netflix logs and gaming achievements against sharing anything really personal.

“I think older generations in many cases don’t understand the details enough, so they either don’t join the platform at all, or they amble through not understanding who can see what, hoping it’ll be okay.”

“The canary in the cage”

What El-Sharawy references is the idea that millennials have been trained to share since birth; from checking into locations on Facebook, to posting mundane pictures of every second of their daily lives on Snapchat and Instagram. Kids are taught to broadcast themselves, to build up an online identity, a ‘brand’ that spans multiple platforms. As a result, they’ve quickly learned – often through error – what information is safe to share and what data they should keep to themselves, without even giving it a second thought.

“I couldn’t have put it better myself,” replies Jones. “It’s a surprise to me that anyone cares [about the WhatsApp-Facebook data sharing], but that’s because I’m firmly in the group you describe. Kids in their teens and early twenties definitely already think of themselves as ‘brands’ – some openly say so. I generally think being aware of that is a good thing as it means people take more care of their output, but sometimes, people who don’t understand the concept of branding get wrapped up in their personal brand becoming the be-all and end-all and it becomes superficial.”millennials_phone_screen

For those of an older generation, for whom using the internet isn’t second nature, attempting to pick up the nuances of social media management is hard – and it’s especially tough when you realise that most of those who have mastered it don’t even realise they’re doing it. It’s muscle memory; as hard-wired into millennials’ consciousnesses as walking, eating or speaking. Will the gap between the two generations ever be bridged? And should people even try? We’ll likely find out the next time a major social platform changes its user agreement.

“Millennials are the ones using the variety of privacy settings on social platforms”

“Everyone can broadcast everything, but not everyone can watch everyone broadcast everything,” summaries El-Sharawy, suggesting it’s unhelpful for people to think of data-sharing as one uniform mass. “Millennials… are the ones using the variety of privacy settings on social platforms, concerned about whether their phone is sending ‘read receipts’ in reply to messages or not.”

When it comes to privacy, the millennials are the canary in the cage, the indicator as to when we need to challenge a change in policy, or push through with a fresh round of data sharing. Until generations have lived and died in the age of the internet, older does not necessarily mean wiser.

Images: Garry KnightJapanexperterna.se

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