Are we surrendering our privacy too easily?

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Google Buzz is really messing with my brain. All my other social media activities fit nicely along the private-public continuum we all have to juggle. But Buzz feels like an invasion of my personal space. By infiltrating the most private of online communications (email), it’s also daring me to move that privacy line a little bit, and let people in on conversations that they really have no business in being a part of.

As Danah Boyd pointed out in her SXSW keynote this year:
Google got themselves into trouble by launching a public-facing service inside a service that people understand as extremely private. Gmail seems like a logical integration point because people visit there regularly, but juxtaposing the two services created a cognitive disconnect in users’ minds. The result? Confused users believed that their emails were being made publicly accessible. While this was never the case, the integration confused people and gave them the wrong impression about the service. This created unnecessary panic amongst users, resulting in bad PR for Google that was technologically inaccurate.

Privacy and the public persona

This issue, as well as the (now fixed) privacy gaps in Google Buzz, are just the latest in a growing conversation about privacy on the web. Facebook’s recent updated privacy settings created quite a stir, and out of all the gazillion blog posts discussing it, none was more insightful than Danah’s article Facebook’s move ain’t about changes in privacy norms. It is a must-read for anyone interested in this topic.

In the article she says the following (my emphasis added):
There isn’t some radical shift in norms taking place. What’s changing is the opportunity to be public and the potential gain from doing so. Reality TV anyone? People are willing to put themselves out there when they can gain from it. But this doesn’t mean that everyone suddenly wants to be always in public. And it doesn’t mean that folks who live their lives in public don’t value privacy. The best way to maintain privacy as a public figure is to give folks the impression that everything about you is in public.

That last sentence really stuck with me. It is so true. Just because people divulge intimate details of their lives online, doesn’t mean everything they do is public.

Joshua Porter recently tweeted the following:

Ain’t that the truth…

But what if I want to maintain my privacy in public?

Another interesting story in this same vein – and a great example of the uncharted waters of online privacy – is that of designer Dustin Curtis. I’ve been following his blog every since he blogged about the fascinating chain of events after he proposed a redesign of the American Airlines website. That made him a bit of a celebrity in the world of web design, but it turned out to be nothing compared to what happened next. On the day of the Apple iPad launch, he posted some very real-looking (but very fake) photos of the iPad. It quickly sent the Internet into a frenzy and got him coverage on Mashable, TechCrunch and The Washington Post, among other places.

The next day he tweeted, simply: Dustin Curtis: 1, Internet: 0.

Well played, sir. Well played. It’s interesting how he responded to the attention he received from the stunt, though. His Twitter follower count exploded. He created an air of mystery leading a lot of people to wonder who he is.

It even led to a question on Quora with some amusing Chuck Norris-type answers: “Who is Dustin Curtis?” It’s the post on Quora that prompted this tweet from him:

The answer is, of course, pretty straight-forward. If you create a public and controversial persona, and in doing so amass over 13 000 followers on Twitter, people are going to want to find out more about you.

And, as a recent Times article pointed out:
When you make your private life public, when you seek attention in that broad a manner, you’re inviting not just the cool and the loving, but the angry and aggrieved.

And that is where online privacy get tricky. We already talked about how public people value there privacy very much. But at some point, people are going to assume that because you live a lot of your life in public, you have no need to be private, and won’t mind people digging around in your personal life (since there is no personal life any more). But that’s clearly not the case, as Dustin points out in his tweet.

Facebook as theatre

In a similar vein, I have to say that I have become increasingly uncomfortable with public conversations on Facebook. And by that I mean girls who write “I miss you” on their boyfriends’ walls, people making coffee arrangements on each other’s walls, etc. Once conversations that should be private are undertaken in a public forum, they become theater – meant for the onlookers more than the participants. And that’s troubling.

Yes, there are legitimate cases (mostly for the sake humor) to have public conversations on Facebook. But if you decide to write on someone’s wall and not send an email or a text, you are doing it so that other people can see it. And that hurts the authenticity of the interaction.

So it’s not just that the lines between what is public and what is private are getting blurred. It’s also that what is acceptable in the public realm is changing, as proven by those “I have to go to the bathroom” status updates I’m sure we all see occasionally in our news feeds.

Where do we go from here?

There are no universally agreed upon guidelines for what should be public and what should remain private online. I’m pretty sure there will never be. But I do believe that where that line is drawn should be a conscious decision by every person who goes online. You can’t share every detail of your life online and then expect people to leave you alone. You can’t go on Facebook, not change your privacy settings, and then complain if some of your photos leak out. On the flipside, you can’t build a blog audience by writing articles that don’t expose your opinions in some way.

But wherever that line is drawn, it is extremely important that there is a point where your life stops being public.

The article Danger online: Perils of revealing every intimate moment puts it this way:
Concerns, though, are growing about the decline of the private self. Many people are questioning the wisdom particularly of blogs in which ordinary people write regular updates about their children and spouses, and they are asking whether we are surrendering our privacy too easily.

Or to put it another way, from another great article on the topic, Party On, but No Tweets:
We are fighting against this whole idea that everything people do has to be constantly chronicled. People think that every thought they have, every experience — if it is not captured it is lost.

When you let go of the pressure to chronicle, you are free to enjoy the moment for what it is, without the pressure of getting that picture up on Twitpic.

Don’t get me wrong – I think it is possible to build fantastic communities online by living public lives – both for business and personal purposes. And I am definitely not going to stop blogging or shut down my Twitter account. However, more and more I am finding myself agreeing with another sentence buried in that last article: There is something magical about a life less posted.

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  • http://profiles.google.com/pljcbsn pauljacobson

    Google Buzz and the Facebook privacy snafus are case studies in the importance of privacy as control over your personal information, not privacy as secrecy. Privacy as secrecy is only really available to those people who don't engage with the social Web. For the rest of us the privacy debate is really about whether you have meaningful control over your personal information online.

  • http://twitter.com/matthewbuckland matt

    rian — this is a great piece. well researched and argued — and cleared a few questions I've had. thanks for this

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