I want to respond to something Adam wrote about Facebook over at Emergent Chaos, but first I’m going to excerpt my own article from TidBITS:
Privacy is Personal – In the Information Age, determining what you want others to know about you isn’t always a simple decision. Aside from the potential tradeoffs of avoiding particular features or services, we all have different thresholds for what we are comfortable sharing. It’s also extremely difficult to control our information even when we do make informed decisions, and often impossible to eradicate information that escaped our control before we realized the rules of the game had changed.
For example, I use both Amazon and Netflix, even though those services also collect personal information like my buying and viewing habits. I am trading my data (and money) for a combination of convenience and personalization. I’m less concerned with these services than Facebook since their privacy practices and policies are clearer, my information is compartmentalized within each service, and they have much more consistent and stable records.
On the other hand I have minimized my usage of Google services due to privacy concerns. Google’s reach is incredibly expansive, and despite their addition of Google Dashboard to help show some of what they record, and much clearer policies than Facebook, I’m generally uncomfortable with any single company or government having that much potential information on me. I fully understand this is a somewhat emotional response.
Facebook is building a similar Internet-wide ecosystem as they expand connections to external Web sites and services. In exchange for allowing them access to your information and activities, Facebook enables new kinds of services and personalization. The question each of us must answer is if those new services and personalization options are worth the privacy tradeoff.
Deciding where to draw your own privacy lines is a very personal, complex, and even sometimes arbitrary decision. I trust Amazon and Netflix to a certain extent based on their privacy policies, even though they sometimes make mistakes (I didn’t use Amazon for years after a policy change that they later reversed). Yet I’ve limited my usage of both Google and Facebook due to general concerns (Google) or outright distrust (Facebook).
Facebook, to me, is a tool to keep me connected to friends and family I don’t interact with on a daily basis. I restrict what information it has on me, and always assume anything I do on Facebook could be public. I’m willing to trade a little privacy for the convenience of being able to stay connected with an expanded social circle. I manage Facebook privacy by not using it for anything that’s actually private.
Adam has a lot in his article, and I think his criticisms of my original post come down to:
- Your perceptions of your own privacy change within different contexts and over time, so what you are okay with today may not be acceptable tomorrow.
- If you only use the service to post things you’d want public anyway, why use it at all?
I completely agree with Adam’s first point – what you share when you are 19 years old at college is very different than what you might want people to know about you once you are 35. Even things you might share at 35 as a member of the workforce might come back to haunt you when you are 55 and running for political office.
But I disagree that this means your only option is to completely opt out of all centralized social media services. I believe we as society are reaching the point where some degree of social networking is the norm. Even “private” communications like email, IM, and SMS are open to potential disclosure and subsequent inclusion in public search results. The same used to be true of the written and spoken word, but clearly the scale and scope are dramatically larger in the Information Age. We are losing the insular layers that created our current social norms of privacy – which already vary around the world.
The last time society needed to adapt to such changes in privacy was with the Industrial Age and movement from rural to urban society. Before that, it was probably the change from hunter/gatherers to an agrarian society.
I see three possible scenarios that could develop:
- Society adopts a combination of laws and social mores to better protect privacy. It will be expected that you own your own data, and in the future retain a right to edit your past. Essentially, we work to protect our current expectations of privacy – which will require active effort, as the terrain has already shifted under us, and will continue to do so.
- Social expectations change. You’ll be able to run for political office and no one will care that you called some chick or dude hot and joined the “I love some stupid emo vampire” movement. We gain better abilities to protect our privacy, but at the same time society becomes more accepting of greater personal information being public – partially through sheer boredom at the inanity and popularity of our embarrassing peccadilloes.
- There is no privacy.
We have many years before these issues resolve, if ever, and it’s going to be a rough road no matter where we are headed. The end result probably won’t match any of my scenarios, but will instead be some mish-mash of those options and others I haven’t thought of. My rough guess is that society will slowly become more accepting of youthful indiscretions (or we won’t have anyone to hire or elect), but we will also gain more control over our personal information.
Privacy isn’t dead, but it is definitely changing. We all need to make personal decisions about the level of risk we are willing to accept in the midst of changing social norms, government/business influence, and degrees of control.