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Brand Strategy Privacy Threads

Are we quiet quitting on privacy? What Threads says about privacy and passivity

By Jason Hartley, Head of search, shopping & social



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October 19, 2023 | 7 min read

PMG’s Jason Hartley weaves a Thread between Meta’s latest product launch, so-called ‘quiet quitting’, and the evolution of our privacy concerns.

A surveillance camera set into a wall, up close

Are our privacy attitudes becoming more passive? PMG investigates / Bernard Hermant via Unsplash

Less than 24 hours after Meta launched Threads, an estimated 30 million people had signed up. This was a concern among many data privacy advocates, who felt there were immediate risks for users. Given that Meta has been fined multiple times by the European Union for violating data privacy regulations (including a $1.3bn penalty earlier this year), the concern is reasonable (though it doesn’t follow that the millions of people who joined Threads are themselves unreasonable, as some in the privacy community suggested).

How bad actors make quiet quitting on consumer privacy easy

While most privacy professionals are respectful of people’s decisions, there can be a gap between what they advocate for and what consumers want. Part of this is due to the nature of privacy professionals’ jobs. They must stay vigilant about the risks in the digital ecosystem, so they’re flooded with updates on data breaches, fines, and legislative actions, all while striving to assess potential risks, including even more serious issues related to sensitive data. This heightened awareness can lead to a lack of understanding and empathy toward people who may not be as informed (or less concerned about the risks). As a result, people frequently encounter unforeseen obstacles in trying to protect their privacy, regardless of their desire to do so.

For example, the Internet is filled with consent pop-ups – often using dark patterns to nudge people toward consent – and lengthy, obscure privacy statements. This adds anxiety and friction without delivering a tangible reward. It’s understandable, then, that people may choose to click without worrying about what they’re agreeing to, so that they can enjoy the content.

In other words, our efforts to protect individuals from potential privacy issues can inadvertently make their online experience worse, which can lead them to be more risky.

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Privacy, quiet quitting, and deactivating passivity

People who prioritize keeping their data private have a different frustration: they’re willing to take the necessary steps to protect themselves but they don’t have confidence that those steps will be effective. Far too often, businesses will claim to be privacy-safe without taking the steps to ensure that the claim is true. This is typically due to issues with execution rather than malice, but it still reinforces the idea that if you want to be online in any meaningful way, it’s essentially impossible to keep your data private.

Taken together, these dynamics are like those that led to the ‘quiet quitting’ movement among employees that gained prominence in 2022. The buzzword was new, but the catalyst for the phenomenon was not. As the Harvard Business Review put it, “In the face of persistent and inescapable stressors, people often respond by simply giving up.”

Historically, this was called learned helplessness, where people simply gave up when confronted by what appears to be an unwinnable situation. However, according to that HBR piece, recent research suggests that “passivity is our default hardwired response to prolonged adversity”. In other words, giving up isn’t learned; it’s activated. This insight into the human mind might be somewhat distressing, but as marketers we know that if we want to persuade people, we need to understand their motivations. The good news is that the brain is quite flexible, and even passivity can be deactivated.

To do this, we need to develop systemic fixes that improve the online experience. This includes devising strategies that empower individuals by acknowledging their perspectives and concerns. Education can play a vital role, but it should be focused on the benefits of proactively managing your data privacy. Change won’t come from data alone, as marketers must appeal to people’s emotions as well as the potential harms they’re avoiding. Knowledge isn’t only power, it’s freedom.

Designing better systems

The marketing industry must develop improved ways for users to proactively manage their privacy. Rather than resorting to dark patterns to push for data collection consent, we can instead adopt ethical design thinking, which prioritizes the needs of the user at the core of the experience. This requires us to emphasize transparency, ease of use, memorability, satisfaction, and focus, leading to immediate positive results and fostering sustainable, long-term growth.

In this paradigm, privacy teams need to play a leading role, and they must be fully integrated with the rest of the company and collaborate throughout the process. Currently, privacy teams are often kept separate from other key job functions, which view them as barriers to innovation because of their cautious approach. This perception is often only reinforced by addressing privacy professionals as ‘privacy’ rather than by their names, implying an overly restrictive role.

The goal for every brand and marketer should be privacy by design, seamlessly integrating privacy into products, services, and system designs by default. This requires alignment across the entire organization.

While being cautious is the responsibility of privacy professionals, their effectiveness would improve significantly if they were treated as team members rather than referees. Integrating privacy teams into the workflow of every marketing organization ensures privacy compliance for brands, but also fosters better human connections and collaboration, leading to innovative solutions that safeguard both the brand and its customers.

Brand Strategy Privacy Threads

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