When you signup for any social network, you “agree” to a complex set of legal restrictions and responsibility known as Terms of Service (TOS). I use quotation marks because no one in the history of forever has read a TOS in its entirety. We all merrily click past, intent on setting up our Facebook fan page or shiny new Instagram profile.

If you were to sit down and read Facebook’s TOS, you’d find all kinds of feel-good language about how if they propose any changes, we’ll have a chance to comment on them and participate in a binding vote and on and on. It sounds very much like a democracy. But then you get to this line: “We can make changes for legal or administrative reasons, or to correct an inaccurate statement, upon notice without opportunity to comment.” What constitutes an administrative reason? Almost anything.

I’m not picking on Facebook here; all networks include these kinds of provisions, often without the pretense of being a democracy. It’s important to remember this. Social networks are not your friend. You are not “all in this together.” They are corporations, and increasingly they are public corporations with responsibilities to shareholders. And they will make whatever changes they deem fit to improve their bottom line, the same way you do for your business.

This doesn’t make these sites evil; it makes them practical. So you need to approach your business with the same pragmatism and create a spot on the Internet you can truly call your own. You need a website where you make the rules. No matter how many Facebook fans you have, no matter how much business you bring in through Twitter, none of that matters if one day Facebook or Twitter change their TOS in a way that disadvantages you, as Facebook has done recently with its logarithmic updates. You need to be able to operate completely independently of these third party sites.

Owning a website is like owning real estate: It gives you security. It’s your corner of the Internet and no one can take it from you, provided you keep up with your hosting bills. Don’t be fooled by the bright shiny lights of social media. They’re important. But they are not yours. Use them as tools, but remember that the only true security is in owning a website of your very own.

photo credit: Gavin Paisley via photopin cc