There was a time when things like decency, self-respect, and privacy mattered, and that time was not too long ago. I’m not going to spend this post lamenting modern society abandoning the concept of self-respect, poise, decency, and other things which seem practically alien in our show-all, tell-all, midriff-sporting, trampstamp-pride (yeah, I hate the word too, but it’s appropriate) oriented culture. I may seem like one heck of an old fogie, but I’m talking about a time I remember that was less than 15, maybe even 10 years ago! With regards to the “living near the bottom” mindset America seems stuck in, I think (hope) it’s just a natural cycle and it will just get better in time. But when it comes to the privacy topic, I’m more than disappointed, I’m near outraged. And I’m going to point some fingers.
It’s hard to say when and where we decided to give up our rights to privacy online. Note that I’m focusing to the online world, and have no commentary regarding people’s ability to do things like steal credit card receipts, dumpster dive, or other methods of specifically targeting an individual, as these take concerted and directed effort. One could argue the entire concept of the “social web” might be in exact defiance of personal privacy. Some of the early players (this is not meant to be an exhaustive list of all things social on the web!), in semi-chronological order:
- Geocities – instead of, well, not really existing online, you can have a home page! Unquestionably the first time people chose to give up personal privacy for some flirtation with Internet fame – but – it was at a time when there was little “networking” from one site to another, so a given person’s home page actually was it’s own disconnected “island” on the Internet (as opposed to the inherent connected nature of services like Facebook). Geocities deserves special mention for being the first (but far from last) time an individual could not only create their own customized page, but make it extremely ugly and hard to read. Privacy impact: moderate.
- Delicious – instead of keeping your favorite bookmarks to yourself, share them with the world! The reality of the potential harm here is fairly low, as one still has a local bookmark capability through the Web browser AND one can easily choose not to share a bookmark they don’t want shared. Privacy impact: negligible.
- MyBlogLog – instead of being able to read a blog post in relative anonymity, a “footprint” is left of the trail you have as you surf various blogs. Again, this is extremely opt-in, however, the mere enablement of this plug-in on a blog meant a third-party could specifically “follow” you as a unique Web surfer. Privacy impact: low.
- Flickr – instead of having to manually share your photos with your friends/family, automatically upload your photos into the public eye unless you specify otherwise. Flickr represented a massive shift in thinking, and I’d personally argue it ushered in the concept of “live in public” to the masses. Example search for pictures that are probably going online without consent of those who are actually in the pictures. Privacy impact: major.
- Friendster – technically not the first attempt at social networking, but the first one to bring it to a wide spectrum of users. I honestly don’t even remember what I did on Friendster, other than befriend the fake users others had so much fun creating (except for the management team, who clearly thought using the Internet for anything fun was a bad idea). Friendster marked the first time people really paid attention to “numbers of friends” as a metric of importance (ah, the implacable human ego). Privacy impact: moderate-to-low.
- YouTube – Take Flickr up a notch, by enabling anyone, no matter how dreary and boring, to have their own special place to upload pirated commercial personal videos. Prior to YouTube one was judged purely on their attractiveness (based on the best-looking picture of themselves ever taken, regardless of how long ago), but now we could take every embarrassing, awkward, and goofy moment we have, and immortalize ourselves online with it. It didn’t take long for YouTube to be the haven for people falling off skateboards, failed catapult launches, or (one of my personal favorites) take the video of your friend accidentally hurting herself and further embarrass her by putting it on the Internet – but don’t worry, she didn’t bleed or anything (now that is a great example of friendship!). Privacy impact: major.
- MySpace – It’s like GeoCities, but now with 10 times the ugly, and more ways to connect than ever before. Originally started as a way for bands to connect with their fans (and for fans to connect with each other), MySpace evolved (or devolved) into a haven for bizarre methods of self-representation, a lustfulness for comment-writing and a bizarre desire to have as many friends as is humanly possible. Today it’s a bit of a “black sheep” in the social networking world, but still has millions of people sporting the most outrageous color schemes (oh look, it’s red-on-red, hey thanks!) and online “bling” imaginable. Privacy impact: massive.
- Blogging – While there’s no specific technology at play here, the notion that one and all could have a “web log” aka a public diary became very in vogue in the latter half of the aughts (you know, the decade that just ended?). Blogs were key to creating the illusion that one’s deeper thoughts should be shared, in written form, with the world. Since there’s actually a decent amount of work required in order to blog, and most blogs are rapidly abandoned, on an individualized basis it’s not a big deal – except for those who go overboard. And yes, I do get the irony of this blog post. Privacy impact: minor-to-major (highly self-inflicted!).
- Zoominfo – You might not have heard of this one, but ZoomInfo.com uses all the content it can find about you to build a profile of who you are (or might be) – screenshot is below. On the plus side, they will allow you to effectively delete your profile, and it’s really focused on your business “identity”, but if you ever needed an example of how scary the concept of being stalked online is, this is the one. To be clear, the company itself is not doing anything wrong, they are simply finding information about you through completely publicly available sources, that’s the scary part. Privacy impact: N/A – they themselves merely aggregate stuff.
- Twitter – Without analyzing use of the service, Twitter is just a “public update” one can make, in 140 characters or less. Not a big deal. However, the cultural shift one is inclined towards after deep adoption of the use is where the problems show up. For those who actually use the service (which is not the majority of Twitter’s users), there is a sensation wherein it becomes more and more challenging not to share things. And for those with poor critical-moment-decision-making skills AND a lack of extreme discipline, Twitter is the ultimate tool in accidental self-representation online. Self-censorship is a difficult thing, and a tool like Twitter makes it way too easy to accidentally tell a lot of people something you’d rather have kept to yourself (and yes, we can make the argument that people should just be better about how they Tweet, but that’s like blaming bullets for shooting deaths). Privacy impact: massive.
- Foursquare, Gowalla, and other location-based services – Take Twitter (above), now apply it specifically to enable you to proactively tell the general public where you are at a given moment. This plus the free white pages is about the easiest way in history to explicitly tell thieves when your house will be unoccupied. Granted it’ll take a bit before the average criminal gets quite so sophisticated, but the mere concept of it should be giving you the willies. And if it doesn’t, check out Blippy. Privacy impact: so high it’s amazing anybody uses it.
- Facebook – The grand-daddy of them all. Over 300 million people use Facebook today, one could call it an individual’s “hub” of personality on the Internet, not to mention the best place to buy fake farm animals and even throw sheep at each other – awesome. Now when Facebook first launched, it was for (and from) college kids only – us old folks couldn’t even see what crazy fun was ensuing inside the closed doors. They then opened it up for anyone to use, however all activities were “private” within Facebook – only your “friends” (a term the service has effectively destroyed) could see your activities. This notion of privacy is what got people really using Facebook to share personal moments en masse. Facebook then, and this is the worst part, threw that precedent out the window. Facebook not only shares your content, updates, photos, friend lists, and everything else in public, it does so with the entire world! Privacy impact: words don’t describe.
I want to make sure I explain my premise again properly, as by now I’m sure some people just think I’m a loony laggard who doesn’t “get it”. I get it. I get how we’ve been tricked. I see it very clearly. Let’s face it, Friendster was clearly the “gateway drug” which led us down the path to sharing crazy intimate details in the public eye, and thinking how it’s expected. Heck, it was an easy path to follow, and it played into so many people’s desires to feed egos – finally it could be done unilaterally! The Internet basically enabled the individual to be famous. And if it’s not clear, fame sells – and sells well. But it’s at a cost – simple google searches showed me information like prominent bloggers’ home addresses, birthdays, and other data that makes identity theft (an actual real crime) something so easy that a clever hacker could probably write a web program to do it automatically.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg even went so far as to say something to the equivalent of “that if he were to create Facebook again today, user information would by default be public, not private as it was for years” (source). Guess what Mark – you might not be at the helms of a huge company had you made that choice. I hear a lot of industries afraid to make certain decisions because of the “slippery slope” they lead to. Well, it’s happened, and there’s really no one company to blame. Sure, each played their part, and some more aggressively/offensively than others, but let’s face it – we all got suckered in.
Please note and be aware – your privacy has been in violation for a long time. Public records show home ownership details, birth certificates, licenses, and much more. These have been available to the lowest bidder for quite a while. I view this as a different (albeit serious) issue, as none of these are opt-in privacy flaws. But just because someone can do things like dumpster dive to find your most recent credit cards statements does not by default imply that one should sign up to Blippy and voluntarily throw this information info the public eye. Further, I’ll completely acknowledge that I am just as guilty as many others for living in oversharing mode – but I guess the first step is being aware that there is a problem.
I read today (I’ve been working on this post for a while, so the timing is a little ironic coincidental) that people are starting to give up social networking for a variety of reasons – privacy being one of them. I don’t know if that’s necessary, but I think it’s certainly understandable. What I think is more important is for people to make certain choices about the public scrutiny they choose to live their lives under.
WHAT SHOULD YOU DO?
- Make sure you are personally aware of the various nuances and ramifications of each of the services you use (for example, did you know that your status updates on Facebook will, by default, be seen not only by your network, but by their networks as well? – here are some tips for improving your Facebook privacy settings – go do them immediately upon finishing this reading).
- Think about how your choices to proactively share can impact not only yourself, but your family, coworkers, and friends. Take into consideration that you might think it’s adorable to put up a photo of your kid in some embarrassing moment now, but they might not appreciate it when they are an adult and it’s still on the Internet (and it will be)!
- Don’t forget about the future you – who may not want to have the world know about some incident better left in private.
- Finally, consider your real objectives. Do you actually care about Twitter followers? Does it matter to be the Mayor of your local Starbucks? Of course not, and there’s nothing wrong with having some fun and frivolity – but remember that it all comes with a cost. When you proactively give up free information, companies are profiting from it.
Your privacy is an asset. Take care of it.
While many MySpace pages are no doubt among the ugliest on the modern Web, you have likely willed your memory to perish the images of some of those old GeoCities pages. Recall that there was no greater haven for the blink tag and animated GIF clip art than in that pantheon of quickly abandoned self-expression. MySpace pages are certainly not 10x their inferrior even accounting for the jarring MySpace audio tracks.
Jeremy, I really appreciate your perspective and history lesson on privacy through social networks. This is an excellently written post. Excellent! Your phrasing of “self-inflicted” is unbelievably true. So often we are disassociated with the quantity of people we’re actually sharing our private thoughts with. It’s as though we “sorta” know that we’re putting something out there publicly, but don’t recognize the impact until is comes back to bite us in the ass.
Thanks to the fact that I work at a very conservative company, appreciate my job, fear losing it if I say the wrong thing “online”, I’ve been hyper aware of what I share online. In fact, so fearful that I’ve blogged as my alter ego and bellydance stage persona @dreadfullfufu for 3 years before I made a quiet announcement that I am indeed the same person. I haven’t heard anything at work about it, but I’ve grown tired of living two lives. Nonetheless, I still make every attempt to protect my own privacy and educate others on how they too can protect theirs.
I expect we’re going to see many, many restrictions come in place when it comes to user privacy, despite the fact that public records, as you so eloquently stated, have violated privacy for years. Our society continues to believe in the theme that, “I’m not responsible for my actions, so Big Business or Products must take responsibility for me.” Which I think is part crap and part true. We who develop or manage products must make user privacy features and education a natural and intuitive part of our designs. I believe this will begin to fall into a similarly regulated category as Mr. LaHood is pushing to make Driving-While-Texting (DWT) and cell phone use while driving.
Thanks again. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts on user privacy.
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