Mon 11 Jan 2010
In what was the least surprising and most self-serving statement of the weekend, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has proclaimed that privacy is no longer a social norm in our world. That's right. Privacy… GONE. Over. We're all now happy to put the most intimate and minute details of our lives on the internet, and we won't think twice about it. Thank goodness we have CEOs like Zuckerberg to tell us about our social norms.
Now back to reality. Privacy is not dead. Far from it. Privacy is a bigger issue than it has ever been.
So how should we read Zuckerberg's statement? On the one hand, we can default to the most general implication of what he's saying: notions of privacy are in flux. True. But that's always been true. Is the internet changing privacy more fundamentally than radio or television did? It's interesting to think… It couls be that the pace of evolving norms has been accelerated of late. Or, we could remember that Zuckerberg is the mouthpiece for the internet's most prominent and, arguably, egregious privacy violator. It is squarely in his company's interest to argue that the default reaction of the Facebook-going public is to share everything with everyone. It saves him the hassle of having to deal with the violations that are increasingly occurring.
So, what can we say about privacy in the age of Facebook and Twitter? First of all, I think we should resist the urge to make blanket pronouncements. There is certainly a group of young people who have grown up with Facebook in their lives. For these people, privacy means something different, just as "friend" means something different, than it does for many other people. But that's far from a common view. Yesterday's NYTimes Week in Review has a nice article on this subject. For many, arguably most folks, privacy is still very real. And it's something that many people hold important and nuanced attitudes about.
With Coye Cheshire and Elizabeth Churchill, I have been looking into these attitudes. We've been finding that discretion – the ability or desire to suss out the nature of a specific situation and act accordingly, rather than applying a blanket attitude – is key. I suspect that many people exercise a huge amount of discretion about their online information. They differentiate between contexts, audiences, and types of information. After all, why do we assume that the same privacy attitudes would apply to information about, say, our bank accounts, our present geographical location, and our breakfast?
I think privacy is going to be the banner issue of 2010 and beyond. But the banner isn't going to read "Privacy is Dead." The challenge for sites like Facebook is going to be to build socially smart tools that don't apply blanket rules about privacy. Facebook's new privacy rules are organized around functions on the site. But I don't want to decide who can read all my status updates. I want different people to have access depending on what I'm writing about, when I'm writing, where I am, etc.
Dealing with privacy effectively will mean first doing some tough research. What aspects of individuals, of contexts, and of interactions bear on specific privacy attitudes? We need to be thinking of privacy as a whole range of attitudes, not simply a single standard. Then we need to design easy-to-use technologies that can give people the privacy they want based on what they're doing and who they're doing it with.
Facebook can't solve the privacy issue by wishing it away or declaring it gone. If Zuckerberg's comment is indicative of their stance, I'm seeing the chink in Facebook's armor. Some wily start-up is going to come along with a beautiful and flexible technology that will allow people to share the way they want to and they're going to eat Facebook's lunch.