Privacy issues leave people feeling vulnerable.
Anyone with the responsibility of leading or building an on-line social media company is bound to get into deep analysis of the demographics of their audience, and I am no different. To build a product aimed at the mainstream, you ask different questions on why people behave the way they do online, and what are the trends demonstrated by new adopters of these online services.
Reading recent press surrounding Facebook and privacy, it’s clear that users are sensitive about personal information being shared without their understanding of who’s getting that information and when. Privacy controls to third-parties are present in these systems, with even greater controls coming soon.
However, too often people are confusing the third-party issue with the sharing mega-trend in general.
Read any recent article on the topic of Internet privacy and you’ll encounter the (obvious) observation repeated over and over again: we’re sharing more with each other, in real-time, than ever before.
The big story here, you will read, is that this has left many people feeling vulnerable and concerned about the future.
Privacy, so the rants say, is becoming a thing of the past, being replaced by the sudden nakedness of our lives, exposed for all to read and see. As this relates to social media communication, tweets, for example, about our lunches, nail polish, locations or links to photos of our precious moments are now available for mass market consumption.
How could this happen? What does it mean?
On an immediate and practical level, the folks behind http://pleaserobme.com have illustrated the worst case scenario: Public tweets, exposing our location through services like Foursquare, Gowalla, or just random updates, were also communicating a message that we weren’t home. Now is the time to rob me, because I’ve just announced “I’m not around.”
On broader level, over time and particularly with the younger generation’s comfort with these online tools, digital storage and availability brings up other issues of identity management and permanency as well. In John Palfrey and Urs Gasser’s book, “Born Digital”, the impact of a generation of “Digital Natives” being born into this age with a constant, never-ending digital fingerprint has huge implications. What we say now will forever haunt us. You don’t need to be a Digital Native to know that, either, or so I’ve (perhaps ironically) learned being the CEO of a social media company.
There are real dangers with all of this habitual sharing of information, which pleaserobme.com and Palfrey and Gasser illustrate. However, these kinds of stumbling blocks are common with new communication mediums. But the truth is, the public finds its way around them.
The use of the term “privacy” in all of this analysis is an oversimplification.
Look deeper, behind what these messages — we’re talking about Facebook posts, tweets, text messages — actually convey. What are people sharing? Rather than exposing something private, for many, these communications are actually the clarification of feelings and experiences. Instead of offering new, previously unheard information (i.e. shared with no one), what was often subtle, confusing, or generally misunderstood now is being given clarity and depth.
For example, consider how different people use the instant messenger “status” function. For me, that status is either “away,” or “available,” depending on whether or not I want to be bothered. For a more experienced (read: younger) generation, the status message implies a whole lot more: I’m happy, sad, drunk, hungry, scared, anxious, driving (!), or even in crisis. These aren’t facts that people didn’t necessarily want to convey before. But now, when composed in prose, in an away message, or via a 140 character tweet, their “status” suddenly become more clear, less subtle, more informative and expressive. This is why people are attracted to these forms of communication. Does this mean we are being less private?
As for more robust information sharing (beyond simple status reports), consider this: If you could share your favorite photos with all your friends in person, and lug around a giant photo album with you, would you? Well the social media user seems to be saying yes, they would.
I once heard someone describe MySpace profile decorations as similar to a teenager’s bedroom. Another person commented, “Sure, but would you let 3 million strangers into your teenager’s bedroom?” The truth is more complicated: Strangers are less and less likely to be invited onto a profile page. It happens, but increasingly we’ve become aware of what it means to grant access. An entire new social language exists, using words like “Ignore” and “Decline” or “Delete.” Moreover, people use different social networks for different forms of expression; Facebook for friends and family, LinkedIn for business contacts, Twitter for audiences of our own personal radio stations.
To say we have decreasing privacy implies that information we previously would not share is now becoming available to the public. I would argue that while issues around the abuse of personal data by social media companies are real and worthy of attention (there are indeed predators out there with myriad interests), we mustn’t confuse this issue with the new language of social media. Twitter and Facebook aren’t necessarily making us less private people; they are making us clearer people… and with clarity comes greater understanding, not danger.