Sunday, May 16, 2010

Would you like a Unicorn with that?

I am amused.  Americans seem to become less realistic as time goes by.  They seem to believe that just because they want to be 100% safe 100% of the time, then that's the way things should be.  They seem to believe that they should have access to any and all services they might ever want, but these services should not cost them anything, and should never do anything they don't like.  This attitude shows up quite often in discussions of tax policy, and an even more fantastic version has popped up in the last couple weeks over the social networking site Facebook.

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.

Which leads us to the other kind of information.  You're going through a divorce and ugly custody fight.  You have AIDS.  You're an atheist.  You would prefer this information remain private.  Well, here's the hard truth. It is YOU who is responsible for keeping your privacy private.  If you choose to post this type of information on Facebook, or any other internet site, you have effectively lost control of it.  It is out there, available, and subject to being read, viewed, captured, measured, counted, compiled and otherwise used.  But your privacy wasn't violated - you posted the information on the INTERNET!  You no longer can have an expectation of privacy - no matter what you hear, no matter what the site's privacy policy says, many things can and do happen and you can never get that information 'back'.

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...


  1. I always thought it was once you hit 'send' or 'post' you shed all expectations of privacy, even with private email (Carrnivore, TIA, Room 641A, etc.) We already have businesses selling their customer lists (to those mf'ing telemarketers.) Seems only the very dim have an expectation of privacy.

  2. Well yeah, but the dim don't deserve to get fucked any more than the sharp ones do. It's a trade, and that's fine, but you join with one expectation and then the goalposts move when you're hooked. I believe there's another trade that operates like that.

    Interesting thread includes pointers to startups that seem like they might be nice...FOR NOW. [Evil laughter.]

  3. But, but, NO!

    This is precisely the argument that makes my face hurt. It's YOUR fucking privacy. To just demand that other people protect it because you're too stupid or busy or distracted to do it yourself is a non-starter.

    If it's not important enough to learn the rules of the road, it's not important enough to keep private. Come on. It's not hard, and it's not complicated. You can NOT abdicate responsibility for your own information and at the same time rail against the very people you decided to entrust with information you would have been better served to keep to yourself.

    Other people have other motives, and the fact that they don't align with yours is EXACTLY why you need to take responsibility for what you decide to reveal...

  4. This is precisely the argument that makes my face hurt. It's YOUR fucking privacy. To just demand that other people protect it because you're too stupid or busy or distracted to do it yourself is a non-starter.

    Untrue as there are privacy laws all over the world, and with good reason. I agree that the trade of privacy on Facebook is pretty obvious up front - if you use your real name it will be worth more - but I disagree that my mom should have to figure out how the fucking thing works every time they find a new way to sell her information.

  5. There are laws against murder. I'm pretty sure there's a fair number of victims that would say they were inadequate.

    It's YOUR information. No one has it but you, until you give it to someone else.

    Go try to find the name of my therapist. You won't be able to. Know why? Cause I won't SAY! I'm protecting MY privacy...

  6. Hey, I accept that you're one of the smart ones...

  7. Nice to know you are seeing a therapist mikey.