Facebook has recently changed their privacy settings and it has hit a huge nerve with nearly everyone that uses the ubiquitous social network. It has been reported in mainstream media, which has lead to people talking about it even away from their computers. Right now, the best discussion of internet privacy in the last 5 years is going on and the context is pretty lame. We are trying to decide whether or not to allow status messages to be read by everyone or to allow pictures to be posted for the world to see. The real debate is all about how a “company” can switch a default setting to be more public without the users permission. It is a debate about trust… which is good, but it is also kind a whiney way of thinking through just what privacy means in a social network (i.e., They did this to “us.” Can you believe it? I am just shocked.).
The debate I would like to be having is where personal regret comes into the equation. While some people put privacy and public safety at odds, I would set up privacy and regret as opposing forces in an online world. I believe that regret and privacy collide twice as the level of privacy continues to rise. The first collision is when the privacy is so low that people know everything about you and can manipulate those items at their will. This is the situation where Identity Theft is ripe. It is the situation where people are fired over their posts. It is also the situation that leads to the terrifying realization that a lifestream (chronicling every events via video, pictures, audio and text) is just another way of not engaging fully with the people directly in front of you. (The time it takes to comment on what is going on is time away from what is actually going on.) While this collision of privacy and regret is often discussed, it is not the only one that occurs.
The second collision of privacy and regret is when privacy settings are the highest. In this collision, the regret is truly for opportunities lost. When our privacy settings are too high (meaning that we don’t put out anything online or create a digital footprint at all), there is no way for a potential employer to contact us on LinkedIn. When our privacy level is too high, people with a genuine need to get in touch with us cannot. When we keep our digital pictures on our hard drives, our daily happenings in our memories, and our thoughts inside our heads, the legacy that we leave is anything but rich. This collision does not get attention on news channels, and it is not one that will ever cause an uproar. This is mostly due to the fact that there is nothing to measure. You can’t measure the thousands of dollars you lose because you didn’t get a new job offer. You can’t measure the lack of great ideas you have because you do not exist in a community. You also can’t measure the friends you don’t make because of your stunted social network. Yet, we do know that these opportunities exist for those who share. We know because it happens to me on a weekly basis. People I don’t know e-mail me and ask me to come speak, help with a new project or simply to help me flesh out one of my ideas. These are opportunities I can measure because I do have my privacy settings much lower. I have positioned myself directly between the two collisions.
Yet, the second collision is where the real debate should be. We should be trying to figure out what information makes sense to put out to the world to be indexed by Google or have ads placed next to it on Facebook. We should see the opportunities of opening up our world to what other people might remix or build upon. This is the way in which we will preserve true competition. If others are using the immense amount of data to help their projects and ideas get off of the ground and you aren’t, you have almost no chance of keeping up. If your privacy settings are so high that they limit your ability to work with others then you are the one that loses out in the end.
While I am absolutely terrible at creating diagrams, here is one that I think represents these two collisions quite well. The regret curve is parabola and your privacy settings are a straight ascending line. The two connect at the collision points (although this diagram does describe a situation that could be worse than the initial collision point, which is to have no privacy at all and your level of regret is just as high as if you had a really high privacy setting). I hope this all makes sense:
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That's quite the diagram. Really. It's something.
I'd like to see an addendum to this post since the advent of chatroulette and formsrping. I'm working on articulating my own thinking around the platforms. They strike me as true bending of our conception of privacy. Everything we do on Facebook or LinkedIn or the like runs fairly close to what we do in the real world. Some people play it safe. Some people live publicly. This two newcomers play with those rules. All of a sudden, we're public with anonymity. Something about that strikes me as strange and perhaps even anti-social and uniquely human. Is it freeing and liberating in a way that allows people new understandings of and ways of experimenting with whom they are? What's the consequence?
I really don't know what the consequence of being more public than private.
I don't know the result of anonymity by mass adoption. When everyone
actually starts to use their voices and build their own things, the crowd
will need ways to connect.
Anonymity isn't it. I think that chatroulette and formspring are uniquely
misguided. Throwing a dart at the map isn't the way to make lasting
connections. It is like we are going back to IRC's random chat rooms. It is
like we are stumbling into our work rather than thinking it through. It is
saying proving to people that the network and the people don't matter, just
the experience is enough.
Experimentation is important and I'm not even going to attempt to graph
these too phenomenon. But, what is it that we are playing with here? Let's
play with public and private spaces. Let's play with what we will regret.
Let's play with it, but let's also design it too. Let's not settle for the
easy stuff because it has the capacity to go viral. Let's be focused and
spontaneous at the same time.
That is why Aardvark is more interesting than Formspring and Skype is more
interesting than chatroulette. If you know how to use those tools, you will
get better results and figure out just how public you need to be.