Public Communication & Privacy on the Internet

Online Privacy described in a Venn Diagram
Infographic by Buriednexttoyou (via Flickr)

If your friends are like mine you’ve heard them complain all year-long that we’ve lost our private lives, sacrificing anonymity in the interest of advertising data.  Since the beginning of 2010 we’ve heard public figures and friends alike suggest it’s time to quit social media.  Culminating with the FTC’s policy recommendations about internet privacy, 2010 has been another marque year for privacy advocates.

Yet the internet has opened up new windows of insight into each others’ lives, connecting us closer with our friends and sometimes revealing new aspects of our personality between friends.  Often these ideas are shared in public channels, opening individuals to new connections, although others prefer to keep there information between friends alone.  For years there has been a backlash to protect privacy on the internet, but is an open medium paid for with advertising dollars ever truly private?

In the interest of full disclosure, I should acknowledge that I work in the business of measuring consumer behavior online, although all opinions stated in this post are my own and are not necessarily shared by my employer.

Facebook’s privacy woes

In contrast to the non-stop growth of Facebook, including many laggards finally integrating social media into their everyday lives, there has been public outcry every time Facebook tries to make changes which open their network. For many, Facebook began as a private network, closed to the rest of the web, with the built in expectation that what was on Facebook would stay there. Beginning with the introduction of Facebook Open Graph, Places, and many other missteps along the way (including potential security breaches), the company has lost the trust of many frustrated by their complex privacy options. At the very least, it became increasingly difficult to prevent your Mother or Boss from finding embarrassing photos your friends sometimes post.

Surveillance camera area in Toronto, Canada

Along the way, Facebook created new tools to organize our social graph, creating the revised Groups system to organize who information can be shared with. This replaced the previous lists system for controlling privacy between friend groups, which Facebook claims less than 5% of users ever tried. As the social network continued to innovate and grow, users staged “Quit Facebook Day” in May (although less than 40k pledged to walk out) and famously sprung a new social network named Diaspora over the summer. Ultimately millions more have joined Facebook this year, and the network has introduced millions more to new experiences possible only through a network of it’s scale.  As long as the benefits of using Facebook outweigh any complications, we’re not leaving Facebook because there’s not anything else like it.

Check-in Fatigue and Privacy concerns

Oversharing badge on FoursquareAnother major trend in 2010 was the rise of Location-based social media, and with it’s emergence came new warnings about the threats of the check-in.  While I’ve written before about the benefits of place-based networks like Foursquare and Yelp, for others sharing your location seems self-indulgent at best and downright dangerous at it’s worst. Even dedicated users like me who check-in as a reflex and see the benefits of a serendipitous rendezvous with friends have become vulnerable to what’s been called check-in fatigue, in which diminishing rewards (in the form of deals or gaming) don’t always justify the extra exertion necessary to participate.

Please Rob Me was created in February 2010, collecting public check-ins (at least via Twitter) by users as indication that they’re out of their homes.  More recently Fourtrace re-introduced the idea that oversharing provide clues to your whereabouts that can lead to danger.  However these sites miss that these services often feature built-in controls over who you can share your whereabouts with, and that each time their location gets shared on Twitter or Facebook gets shared its a choice of that user.

Oversharing vs Curation

Most privacy concerns come back to not only the expectation of privacy, but to the choices of what users believe is worth sharing.  While social norms may differ between groups of friends, chances are that to at least a few of your friends you’re already oversharing.  For example, unless we have mutual friends, we probably don’t care who you’re having lunch with, and likewise for any number of dubious honors from outside social media.  It’s no coincidence  that many of those who mock Twitter without trying it for themselves are also the same who protest most loudly everytime Facebook changes it’s privacy agreement; for many social media exist primarily only for sharing between friends.

It comes back to a simple benefit-exchange: is what you’re sharing forth following you for?  Influencers walk a fine line everyday between oversharing and providing regular updates which add valuable insights for those within their social network.  Bloggers often speak of a curatorial influence that provides value for their readers, and likewise individuals courting influence must consider chart comparing idea generation and willingness to sharewhat’s worth sharing with their own audience of friends.  In any case, it’s a fair assumption that whatever you share online is fair game to see elsewhere (one need look no further than Lamebook to see shameful examples), so it’s good to keep in mind what’s really worth sharing.

Who cares? Google me!

Ultimately in spite of the privacy concerns of many who fear their private musings will be of interest to online marketers/strangers/stalkers forget to ask “Who cares?”.  We’re all relative strangers outside of our social network, and besides those actively courting influence (and trying to help marketers to find themselves), few individuals are interested in their opinions over those more easily available on the rest of the internet.  The best way for individuals to defend their reputation from potentially damaging information online is by securing their own profiles and promoting their personal brand (see this website as my own example).  That way next time your Mom or Boss decides to Google your name (it happens more that you think), you’re actively prepared with a public profile, rather than worrying about what private details might be available online.