Sunday, May 16, 2010
Would you like a Unicorn with that?
Part of it is that people are just inherently confused when they talk about privacy, particularly perceived violations of privacy. Let's be clear - we all have information that we want to keep private. This is perfectly reasonable. It is a violation of our privacy if someone with access to that information takes it and uses it maliciously, or for their own profit. But this entire construct is premised on our reasonable intent to keep that information private, and our reasonable expectations of how our information will be handled. For example, let's say you have a health condition that you want to keep private. If your insurer provides that information to your bank without your permission, you have every right to feel your privacy has been abused. If you tell 100 random people on the subway, even if you exhort them to keep it to themselves, you cannot complain later that your privacy has been violated. If you take out a billboard and list your health condition on it, you can no longer have any expectation of privacy.
Now let's think about Facebook. With over 400 million users, it's obvious that as a community we want an online network site like Facebook. And we have made it repeated and emphatically clear that we are not willing to pay a monthly fee for that service. But an operation like Facebook is a huge, complex, expensive business undertaking, and must be able to generate fairly large amounts of revenue in order to even exist. To expect them not to try to find profitable ways to use the information they get from their huge user community is wildly unrealistic, indeed, if enough sources of revenue were closed off they would cease to be available for people to use. And if you say another will spring up when they're gone, that's true, and they will have the same requirements for revenues and so will seek the same profit opportunities.
So if we want there to be a Facebook for us to use at no charge, we're going to have to be realistic about how they are going to use the information we provide. So it's a valuable exercise to think about the data we provide, and how important it's remaining out of the hands of professional marketers and market researchers actually is. If Facebook knows you like Radiohead and Cold Stone Creamery, do you REALLY care if they tell people that? If so, you simply don't belong on Facebook - any social networking site is going to easily meet your definition of evil. Most of the information we post on Facebook is highly banal, and it's exploitation by marketers is pretty harmless.
So the answer is simple. Use Facebook, enjoy it, there's music and games and friends and events and laughter. But remember: Your privacy is YOUR responsibility - think about what you're posting before you post it. If it's not something you'd be comfortable telling your boss, or the bus driver, or the cashier at the grocery store, you probably should think twice about posting it on the internet. And the other stuff? The bands and movies you like, the foods you eat, the games, the friends? Maybe if you think about it, that stuff isn't quite so private after all...