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The age of privacy is over? God, I hope not.

January 14, 2010 24 comments

Not an original post by any stretch, but I wanted to give me two pence worth to the Facebook-Privacy debate.

I read the post by Marshall Kirkpatrick for ReadWriteWeb , the interview with Michael Arrington is embedded but you can check it out on UStream here as well. At no point does Mark Zuckerberg  say the age of privacy is over but does say that “People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.”

I would agree 100% with that if he had put ‘Some’ in front of People. Making the call that you are going to dictate the default privacy preferences of 350m people is a huge gamble in my opinion. I think if you force everyone to share everything, then a lot of people will share nothing. The value in networks is that the users will disclose far more about themselves and connect deeper with eachother if they think they are in control of their personal information. Humans want security in their envirnoment, offline and online – that’s a base need and why I think Facebook was initially so successful. There was a sense among college students that this was ‘their thing’ and certainly back then, Facebook was privacy mad and even as recently as 2008 .

We can’t undersestimate the impact Twitter and real time in general has had on Facebook and from a business perspective, it is certainly favourable to have everyone’s ‘everything’ in the domain but to assume we all want to be ‘famous’ is a totally different thing. We want intimate connections with our friends, family and loved ones, and strong, secure connections with businesses providing us services  but all of that has to take place on OUR terms. Assuming people want to publish personal details to the world is misunderstanding that as individuals, we are all different in our ‘outgoingness’.

Where’s the line?

Zuckerberg cites the rise of blogging “and all these different services that have people sharing all this information.” Yes, but sharing it on their terms and as Marshall Kirkpatrick  states, there are a fraction of bloggers to the  350m on Facebook . I think  they have a duty to be data hosts and that means you don’t decide for your users what is going to happen with their data and information, you facilitate their decisions. Don’t you? Or am I missing something?

So, where do we draw the line? Should we open up our emails to everyone? What if we are secretly gay and participating in a Facebook group about that? What if we are planning to propose and are chatting with our future spouse’s friends about the details? What if you are unhappy in your job and want to research other opportunites but don’t want to risk getting fired? There are thousands of examples where it probably isn’t best to assume we want to share everything with everyone.

Are we all culturally the same?

There may also be a cultural thing going on here. I am going to write another blog post about this later, but assuming everyone wants to share their personal information is to assume that everyone has the same personal need to put their stuff in the public domain? We all know that isn’t the case. No one  human is the same, some are shy, some are secretive, some are media whores, some are confident and out going…you get the picture. And I think you can take that further and look at the different cultures of the US vs Europe vs Asia for example.

I know you can control your privacy settings on Facebook and if the users understand this then there shouldn’t be a problem. But that again is an assumption that isn’t always the case. My girlfriend for example, has only been on Facebook  for around 6 months and didn’t even know there was privacy controls! Luckliy she isn’t into too much weird stuff so when her current employer checked her profile out…she passed the test but there are countless others that have fallen foul to Facebook’s openness.

Chill out or change things?

Michael Arrington posted on Tuesday that the luddites should chill out. He wrote “Howard Lindzon nailed it the other day when he said Equifax, Transunion, Capital One, American Express and their cousins raped our privacy,” and then “Honestly, a picture of you taking a bong hit in college is mice nuts compared to the mountain of data that is gathered and exploited about every single one of us every single day,” Funny and true (or funny because its true? – never mind) …but that is going on in spite of what users want. Given the choice, I am sure most people wouldn’t want these corporations controlling our data and deciding who gets to see it and when. I think, ideally, most people want to control their own data and let businesses, individuals and organizations interface with it only when they choose.

Please take a look at VRM, if you are not already familiar with it, for an approach that I believe is more in line with what MOST people ultimately want. I am planning on attending a VRM hub meet in London at the end of the month for the first time. I am not sure I will bring much to the party but it is a theory and practice I believe in and hope that, one day will become a reality, and that I am alive to see it!