LinkedIn Crisis Highlights Big Data Challenges

When LinkedIn fell victim to hackers earlier this month, it wasn’t just the social networking site’s reputation that was at risk, but also the data and privacy of more than 6 million of its users. Nicole Perlroth’s New York Times article goes straight to the heart of the issue: “LinkedIn is a data company that did not protect its data.”

Such hacking attacks are nothing new—Perloth points out that and eHarmony have also been hit this month—but LinkedIn’s attack has greater significance. On top of storing sensitive professional information and being the preferred social network among government agencies, LinkedIn is a key player in “Big Data,” a field that is rapidly growing in size, complexity, and economic importance. In March The Motley Fool ranked it at #3 on its “Top Ten Big Data Stocks” and last year LinkedIn received an EMC-sponsored Data Hero Award for being “in a prime position to access user data and leverage its insights.” In fact a Forbes article called it “the Lone Pro in the Amateur-Hour Industry of Social Media” just a day before the hacking news emerged. The company’s security failure was more than a bit like a successful break-in at the most trusted and liquid bank in town.

Trust & Reputation Key

The potential benefits of Big Data are exciting, but the LinkedIn attack shows how trust and reputation are key to realizing them. In order to collect sensitive date, companies like LinkedIn must not only assure that it will be secure, but also that they will use it responsibly. “Big data represents massive opportunities to benefit business, education, healthcare, government, manufacturing, and many other fields,” Kord Davis, co-author of the forthcoming book Ethics of Big Data, said in a recent Q&A. “The risks, however, to personal privacy, the ability to manage our individual reputations and online identities, and what it might mean to lose—or gain—ownership over our personal data are just now becoming topics of discussion.”

LinkedIn is far from alone in its security issues. In a new survey by business technology provider Avanade, 85% of those polled acknowledged “obstacles in managing and analyzing data,” including “data security.” LinkedIn’s stock hasn’t suffered since news of the attack emerged, but a Reuters article suggests that its image is still at risk. “Companies like this survive because of their reputation,” Hemanshu Nigam, an executive of security firm SSP Blue, told Reuters. “People need to make a decision: ‘Can I trust them with my data or not?’”

Big Data grows bigger each day. Facebook, in an effort to prevent breaches like LinkedIn’s, just started asking users for even more personal data: their mobile phone numbers. As more consumers become aware of how much of their lives can be found online, they are becoming more concerned with the security standards of the sites they use. And as brand loyalty expert Michael Hinshaw recently stated on his Huffington Post blog: “If we can’t trust you to manage our data—we’ll find someone who can.”

Harvard’s Nieman Foundation Examines Gawker

The Nieman Foundation at Harvard published this fascinating article by Andrew Phelps, which touches issues central to both old and new media. It examines Gawker’s strategy of dedicating a small number of journalists to pumping out attention (and page-view) grabbing short posts so the other journalists can focus on longer-form pieces. It may be hard to imagine, but is this a strategy more traditional media outlets could adopt to save long-form journalism?

The online article also features a discussion with Gawker’s short-post prodigy on what it is that makes an item go viral.

When a Better Image Produces a Better Reality

A recent New York Times article on Lawrence, Massachusetts’ quest for a better reputation offers a great example of how a concerted effort to forge a better image can have a real impact on a community.

With years of high crime and unemployment as well as lackluster education and local government, Lawrence’s image has suffered so much that Boston Magazine recently called it “the most godforsaken place in Massachusetts.” Spurred by such harsh words, a group of citizens launched We Are Lawrence, a campaign to reshape the city’s reputation. Acknowledging that they “cannot put more officers on the streets,” We Are Lawrence opted instead for “small steps that might revitalize the city, fostering pride and economic development by highlighting its robust history.”

Changing the Narrative

The campaign is only a few months old, and Lawrence’s problems won’t be easily fixed, but there have already been some signs of improvement. The Times describes how “cash mobs” are highlighting and supporting local independent businesses, and Lawrence CommunityWorks, one of the nonprofits involved in We Are Lawrence, was recently awarded state funds to build new affordable housing. The local Habitat for Humanity has also been at work on a number of projects in the city, including building one house in less than a week. “This is about changing the narrative, empowering people to celebrate and encouraging them to work together on the challenges,” Lawrence CommunityWorks’ Maggie Super Church told the Times.

In 2010, the city of Juárez, Mexico, which has been plagued by drug cartel violence, implemented a likeminded strategy with Cronicas de Heroes, an MIT-supported website that shares “stories about ordinary people committing random acts of kindness, bravery and care” in the city. While Juárez’s problems certainly haven’t disappeared, the murder rate has dropped and a new sense of community has begun to emerge. The border city is now literally “back on the map” distributed by the visitors bureau of neighboring El Paso, Texas, which had neglected to include Juárez in recent years.

Highlighting the Positive

Other cities like Vancouver, British Columbia and Branson, Missouri have enacted similar approaches aimed at restoring their damaged images. Following the significant blow to its reputation caused by the Stanley Cup riots in 2011, Vancouver launched, a website highlighting more positive aspects of the city. In Branson, which was devastated by a tornado in February and relies heavily on tourism, local businesses have taken to social media, combatting the ubiquitous images of destruction presented in the media with ones highlighting their rapid rebuilding efforts.

A city can’t wish its problems away, but working to incorporate more positive aspects into its image can go a long way. It has the potential not only to improve a locality’s overall reputation, but also to inspire local pride and community involvement.

Case Study: CNN Signals an Image Change

With its April ratings reaching their lowest point in a decade and primetime ratings the lowest in two decades, CNN’s reputation as the best source for hard news seems to no longer be enough. But rather than adopting a reputation for partisanship like those that have helped MSNBC and Fox News attract larger audiences, the Time Warner-owned network is attempting to expand its range beyond the realm of breaking news.

CNN continues to be the first place audiences go for serious news coverage. It beat its rivals’ ratings the night of the last presidential election and saw better numbers during this year’s primaries and debates and last year’s Egypt coverage. But its ratings rise and fall with the news cycle. “It does have a great reputation and a great global brand name for the casual news viewer,” former CNN researcher Brad Adgate told TVNewser. “The news is still the star at CNN and it isn’t necessarily the star at other cable news networks.”

Expanding Into Areas Beyond Its Core Strength

The network’s recent acquisition of globetrotting chef Anthony Bourdain from the Travel Network and anchor John Berman from ABC News, as well as its decision to turn to more outside producers for its documentary programs, suggests that CNN is aiming to smooth out its ratings roller coaster by expanding into areas beyond its core strength. It clear CNN does not want to give up its reputation for hard news. In the Wall Street Journal, Time Warner executives stressed “that ratings aren’t the only measure of the channel’s value, pointing to its reach online and overseas and its status as the outlet that viewers turn to when there is big news.” Its revocation of a job offer to the Fox News producer responsible for a controversial anti-Obama video indicates that CNN won’t trade in that status for the more politically charged reputations that have worked for its competitors.

But with these moves, are they leveraging their brand, or diluting it? CNN Worldwide VP Mark Whitaker described Bourdain as “a great addition to CNN’s team as we continue to broaden our coverage of news that impacts our audience’s lifestyles,” and Politico speculates that Berman’s addition to CNN’s “Early Start” morning program “may also signal an effort to move the tone of the program away from the news desk and toward the informal, kitchen-table model that has been so successful for MSNBC’s ‘Morning Joe.’”

The Experts Weigh In

The New York Times’ Brian Stelter highlights the fact that CNN is still performing well financially, but he’s not alone in acknowledging that it ranking against other networks “drives public perception — and employee pride — and declines there may gradually damage CNN’s networks as a whole.” Talking to TVNewser, CNN co-founder Reese Schonfeld offers a similar perspective: “CNN is the flagship of the entire CNN brand, and if it sinks it may destroy the entire organization.” Last month summarized a few other takes, including that of NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, who wrote last year that “defining itself as ‘not MSNBC’ and ‘not Fox’ begs the question of what CNN actually is.”

We don’t know how successful CNN will be in expanding its programming, but building upon its existing strengths and preserving its core values clearly seems like the correct move, especially when MSNBC and Fox News are already known for slanting to the left and right. Bourdain may burnish the network’s image as a cultured, global source, and Berman will contribute to its reputation for news coverage, even if his approach is softer. Turner Broadcasting CEO Phil Kent hinted that more changes could be on the horizon, so it will be interesting to see how CNN’s reputation evolves as more faces (and programs) come and go.