When I learned that Mark Zuckerberg effectively argued that ‘the age of privacy is over’ (read: ReadWriteWeb), I wanted to scream. Actually, I did. And still am. The logic goes something like this:
- People I knew didn’t used to like to be public.
- Now “everyone” is being public.
- Ergo, privacy is dead.
This isn’t new. This is the exact same logic that made me want to scream a decade ago when folks used David Brin to justify a transparent society. Privacy is dead, get over it. Right? Wrong!
Privacy isn’t a technological binary that you turn off and on. Privacy is about having control of a situation. It’s about controlling what information flows where and adjusting measures of trust when things flow in unexpected ways. It’s about creating certainty so that we can act appropriately. People still care about privacy because they care about control. Sure, many teens repeatedly tell me “public by default, private when necessary” but this doesn’t suggest that privacy is declining; it suggests that publicity has value and, more importantly, that folks are very conscious about when something is private and want it to remain so. When the default is private, you have to think about making something public. When the default is public, you become very aware of privacy. And thus, I would suspect, people are more conscious of privacy now than ever. Because not everyone wants to share everything to everyone else all the time.
Let’s take this scenario for a moment. Bob trust Alice. Bob tells Alice something that he doesn’t want anyone else to know and he tells her not to tell anyone. Alice tells everyone at school because she believes she can gain social stature from it. Bob is hurt and embarrassed. His trust in Alice diminishes. Bob now has two choices. He can break up with Alice, tell the world that Alice is evil, and be perpetually horribly hurt. Or he can take what he learned and manipulate Alice. Next time something bugs him, he’ll tell Alice precisely because he wants everyone to know. And if he wants to guarantee that it’ll spread, he’ll tell her not to tell anyone.
Facebook isn’t in the business of protecting Bob. Facebook is in the business of becoming Alice. Facebook is perfectly content to break Bob’s trust because it knows that Bob can’t totally run away from it. They’re still stuck in the same school together. But, more importantly, Facebook *WANTS* Bob to twist Facebook around and tell it stuff that it’ll spread to everyone. And it’s fine if Bob stops telling Facebook the most intimate stuff, as long as Bob keeps telling Facebook stuff that it can use to gain social stature.
Why? No one makes money off of creating private communities in an era of “free.” It’s in Facebook’s economic interest to force people into being public, even if a few people break up with Facebook in the process. Of course, it’s in Facebook’s interest to maintain some semblance of trust, some appearance of being a trustworthy enterprise. I mean, if they were total bastards, they would’ve just turned everyone’s content public automatically without asking. Instead, they asked in a way that no one would ever figure out what’s going on and voila, lots of folks are producing content that is more public than they even realize. Maybe then they’ll get used to it and accept it, right? Worked with the newsfeed, right? Of course, some legal folks got in the way and now they can’t be that forceful about making people public but, guess what, I can see a lot of people’s content out there who I’m pretty certain don’t think that I can.
Public-ness has always been a privilege. For a long time, only a few chosen few got to be public figures. Now we’ve changed the equation and anyone can theoretically be public, can theoretically be seen by millions. So it mustn’t be a privilege anymore, eh? Not quite. There are still huge social costs to being public, social costs that geeks in Silicon Valley don’t have to account for. Not everyone gets to show up to work whenever they feel like it wearing whatever they’d like and expect a phatty paycheck. Not everyone has the opportunity to be whoever they want in public and demand that everyone else just cope. I know there are lots of folks out there who think that we should force everyone into the public so that we can create a culture where that IS the norm. Not only do I think that this is unreasonable, but I don’t think that this is truly what we want. The same Silicon Valley tycoons who want to push everyone into the public don’t want their kids to know that their teachers are sexual beings, even when their sexuality is as vanilla as it gets. Should we even begin to talk about the marginalized populations out there?
Recently, I gave a talk on the complications of visibility through social media. Power is critical in thinking through these issues. The privileged folks don’t have to worry so much about people who hold power over them observing them online. That’s the very definition of privilege. But most everyone else does. And forcing people into the public eye doesn’t dismantle the structures of privilege, the structures of power. What pisses me off is that it reinforces them. The privileged get more privileged, gaining from being exposed. And those struggling to keep their lives together are forced to create walls that are constantly torn down around them. The teacher, the abused woman, the poor kid living in the ghetto and trying to get out. How do we take them into consideration when we build systems that expose people?
Don’t get me wrong – folks have the right to enter the public stage. As long as we realize that this ain’t always pretty. I will never forget the teen girl who thought that her only chance out was to put up mostly naked photos online in the hopes that some talent agency would find her. All I could think of was the pimp who would.
There isn’t some radical shift in norms taking place. What’s changing is the opportunity to be public and the potential gain from doing so. Reality TV anyone? People are willing to put themselves out there when they can gain from it. But this doesn’t mean that everyone suddenly wants to be always in public. And it doesn’t mean that folks who live their lives in public don’t value privacy. The best way to maintain privacy as a public figure is to give folks the impression that everything about you is in public.
If we’re building a public stage, we need to give people the ability to protect themselves, the ability to face the consequences honestly. We cannot hide behind rhetoric of how everyone is public just because everyone we know in our privileged circles is walking confidently into the public sphere and assuming no risk. And we can’t justify our decisions as being simply about changing norms when the economic incentives are all around. I’m with Marshall on this one: Facebook’s decision is an economic one, not a social norms one. And that scares the bejesus out of me.
People care deeply about privacy, especially those who are most at risk of the consequences of losing it. Let us not forget about them. It kills me when the bottom line justifies social oppression. Is that really what the social media industry is about?