Tech 100: The Treachery of Pantsuit Nation

Betrayed trust in a popular Facebook group leads to the question, who "owns" social media data?

Pantsuit Nation Image: Facebook.com/Pantsuit Nation

 

A few weeks ago, I wrote an op-ed on whether black women who are members of Pantsuit Nation, both former and current, were too quick to criticize the group.

My stance was that, although the group became less of a meeting place for political action since Hillary Clinton lost the election and more of an arena for posting personal accounts and self-congratulations for demonstrating political correctness, I still felt it was doing a good service. It was allowing progressives to safely vent and air fears about a likely unstable next four years.

However, a lot of sisters were vocalizing criticism over the group’s shift in focus. Well, it looks as though I gave the group too much leeway and the critics were correct.

OK, perhaps the fault is not with the group itself, but with the group founder, Libby Chamberlain. It recently came to light that Chamberlain signed a book deal about Pantsuit Nation. Apparently, the book is to include members’ posts, in their raw and naked entirety.

It’s understandable that a publisher would ink a deal with her. In just a matter of months, Chamberlain built a group with 4 million active members. That’s an astonishing audience adoption rate that any media company would envy.

But here’s the deal—the reason so many, mostly women, flocked to the group was that it was touted as a safe, secret place. You can’t just join, someone has to add you. Pantsuit Nation selects with whom it wants to engage with.

In the assumed cloak of a closed Facebook group, people emoted and shared and divulged their heartbreak and rage over the conservative wave that swept this election. Many recounted racist/homophobic/Islamophobic incidents with family members, co-workers, neighborhoods; all really personal stuff that could likely get them into all sorts of awkward trouble if make public.

Then, The New York Times drops the news that there was a Pantsuit Nation book due for release in five months. Angered and feeling betrayed after sharing their innermost thoughts, PN members flooded the page demanding answers.

Allegedly, the group’s moderators deleted many of their comments.

In apparent response, Chamberlain wrote a light and breezy post about the book, where she stated that no members’ posts would be published without their permission and offered some vague mumbo-jumbo about how the book would “further our mission and the premise that stories give meaning to action and that meaningful action leads to long-term, sustainable change.”

The stink that this sudden book deal has caused, puts Pantsuit Nation and its members into a bright spotlight. Conservative rag, The New York Post, gloatingly covered the book brouhaha and also revealed Pantsuit Nation members’ posts, along with their actual Facebook usernames in its coverage. That sort of outing in this political climate is downright dangerous—and why I refuse to link to the article.

As many posters went on tell her and as this brilliant opinion piece on Huffington Post outlines, Chamberlain is missing the point. People feel as though their emotions are being hijacked for profit. And, as many have pointed out, the transparency that made the group so attractive, should have extended to the founder asking members’ input about a possible book before she sealed the deal.

However, there is another fascinating implication to this controversy. Who owns what data on social media? If I create a group on Facebook, invite people to post and then want to collect their posts and sell it for profit, is that my right?

The use of content that people post across social media has been a hot-button issue for journalists. Many consider Twitter, for example, to be an “open village,” and therefore, Twitter content is free to cite.

As for Facebook, well, it’s complicated. Because users’ have far more privacy controls than with Twitter, such as closed groups, many journalists won’t cite Facebook posts that aren’t public, without the poster’s permission.

But, it would be highly unethical for a journalist to create a “secret” Facebook group, invite people to share extremely personal anecdotes, and then collect that information for a story. That’s pretty much what Chamberlain is doing with her book deal, although she stated no one’s posts would be used without their explicit permission.

In a group with 4 million members, where one post can have over 10,000 comments, it might be harder than she thinks to get that permission.  One thing for sure, for many, trust has been broken and they are fleeing the Pantsuit Nation.

 

 


The Tech 100 is a column that looks at race, religion, sex, politics, and business, in terms of technology, because they are all connected, somehow. Follow @samaralynn