Our Perception of Privacy

SXSW 2010Privacy is an important facet of freedom. It will never lose importance regardless of social or technological changes. We may perceive privacy differently, we may question the value of privacy, but it does not change the solid relationship between personal privacy and personal freedom.

Wacky Crimes
Speaking of technological change, Google exec Eric Schmidt had this to say in 2007 about privacy:

If you don’t want anyone to know, don’t do it

And this seems to be an attitude a lot of younger people are adopting. We hear about the dumb criminals who post tales of their exploits for the world to see – and who are subsequently captured for their crimes. We laugh at sloppy attempts at philandering – especially those done over publicly visible social networks. “Those people should know better than to make such things public” we think. In our eyes, they are the bad guys getting what they deserve. Mr. Schmidt probably laughs at these follies as much as the rest of us (maybe even more). Seeing “bad people” brought to justice is one of the rawest forms of entertainment.

Do these examples of “wacky crimes gone sour” make the whole privacy issue moot? Of course not, and to claim that all privacy advocates are related to these “wacky criminals” is setting up a straw man for the real issues at stake.

Managing Social Circles
Danah Boyd gave a speech at SXSW 2010 about privacy in social networks. The transcription of the talk is available on her website, and is a valuable read if you want to know more about social networking.

Ultimately, it boils down to social circles. You know you have to act in different ways around different kinds of people. When you’re with your friends, you are open and will share anything that isn’t too personal (health issues, etc). When you are with family, you are quick to share personal issues but may hold back on sharing details about relationships or the media you consume. When you are at work, you must behave very differently – professionally.

In the real world, managing your social circles is an easy task. Moving from one circle to the next takes physical effort (driving/walking/picking up the phone), and during this physical effort we make the mental effort to switch gears.

Unfortunately, there isn’t any gear shifting on social networks. You get one profile on Facebook, and every member of every circle gets stuffed into the same pot of friends. Now what? If you’re a member of over 50% of the Facebook community, you’ll do nothing different. You see your Facebook as “full of friends” and will share everything you would normally. That is, until Mom sees something you wish she hadn’t. Or your boss/customers realize your non-professional side doesn’t mesh with the company image. Or your friends won’t stop laughing once they saw that embarrassing photo of you in the third grade. These social circles – easily managed in our real world lives – have been shattered inside social networks.

Rethink “If anyone won’t like it, never do it”
Doesn’t seem like a reasonable compromise, does it? That’s something even Eric Schmidt can understand. I’m sure he does things in his personal life that he doesn’t want everyone to know. Maybe Eric is a fan of the Showtime series Dexter – that’s not a very Google-friendly show. Maybe Eric drinks alcohol on occasion – and to your church, getting tagged in a photo with a bottle of beer is tantamount to admitting you’re an alcoholic. Maybe Eric likes wakeboarding – and bathing suit he wears isn’t something he wants his employees to see. Maybe Eric hates the lamps his kids gave him for Christmas – and doesn’t want them to know.

In order to please everyone, Eric would have to adopt his lifestyle to the lowest common denominator (the group in his life which is most easily offended). He would have to strip his life of anything any group could disapprove of. What sort of life would that be?

We need to be able to filter details about our personal lives among the people we know – it’s a necessity if you’re planning on living your life the way you want (and that’s called freedom).

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