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Online contests: stop selling your followers.

Would you sell your friends’ phone numbers to a telemarketer? Or exchange their home addresses for cash?

Savvy companies know the value of a meme. Viral advertising pays for itself, so marketers employ a variety of techniques to get their brands trending. The perfect celebrity endorsement. The quirky video. The well-managed controversy. Another sure-fire way to kick-start some buzz? Contests. Offer a sparkly prize, and require your fans to share your message in order to enter.

It’s not hard to find examples of this strategy in the wild:

https://twitter.com/ThatKiddKuda/status/588123329053200386

Of course, businesses sponsored contests long before the advent of social media. The difference? Social networks give marketers a direct line to customers’ eager eyeballs—through their Facebook timelines and Twitter feeds.

Stated plainly: when you pass along these companies’ “advert-contests,” you’re selling your friends. You’re bartering your followers’ attention for a raffle ticket. You’re exchanging your friends’ time for the chance to win a vacation (or a PlayStation, or a car). You’re saying to them, “I value even the possibility of free stuff more than I value you.”

Would you sell your friends’ phone numbers to a telemarketer? Or give their home addresses to a door-to-door salesperson for cash? Would you slip ad brochures under your friends’ windshield wipers, if it meant you might win the lottery? Chances are, these exchanges would make you queasy. Yet we enter online contests without a second thought. We don’t ask, “Is this appropriate? Do I want to leverage my friendships into a chance to win a toaster?”

Your social graph is an asset, and you’re free to spend it as you see fit. You can sell your friends to marketers. But don’t be surprised if that friend count takes a hit. For many (including me!), it’s an automatic unfollow.