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May 07, 2010

Facebook, privacy, and the return of social norms

In the early days of the World Wide Web, people cherished their anonymity. Thanks to ubiquitous social applications like Facebook and the ability to access much of it through the ubiquitous search engine, Google, much of that anonymity is going away. A lot of politicians and "privacy advocates" are raising a stink. But is the loss of anonymity necessarily a bad thing?

I jumped on the Internet bandwagon pretty early, when I got my dad's permission to use his AOL account in 1994. I would go into their chat rooms a few times per week, and I don't remember ever meeting the same group of people twice. This was a place for me, a naturally (and sometimes painfully) shy person, to meet new people without the risk of feeling bad that I'd be outed if I said something stupid -- which, hey -- let's face it... is still pretty often. My anonymity afforded greater risk-taking.

At first, the conversations were as esoteric as they were innocuous, but later, as I started to form some firm convictions and developed an ability to articulate them, I noticed that many people saw their anonymity as a license to shrill when they held a contrary view.

The dark side of anonymity

When people cannot identify someone, they're less likely to conform to social norms that exist outside of that anonymity bubble. When people can identify someone, they are accountable for their words and actions, so they're more likely to conform to social norms of probity and decorum.

All your data are belong to us

Fast-forward to a today's Facebook era, and the anonymity has somewhat evaporated. Employers will typically find whatever they can on you -- outside of your history of work -- that they can find, freely available on the Web.

Not only is Facebook indexed, but so are Twitter and other social networking tools. And unless you have a name like "George Washington" or you set out in the beginning to take steps to conceal your identity (a tangled web, indeed), chances are slim that you will be able to effectively do so.

Anonymity, in short, is a myth in today's environment. But the myth persists, because people want it to be true. There is power in anonymity, such as the power to ignore social norms.

Now Congress is threatening to get involved in the Facebook privacy dispute. They are concerned that marketers might be able to use personal information about you to deliver more relevant ads.

Why is delivering relevant ads even objectionable?

Are our representatives afraid that you and I will buy something we actually want or need? Hogwash! When we buy what we need, it improves company revenue, which leads to higher employment, which helps incumbents get re-elected.

A happy and satisfied electorate is always less likely to rock the political boat.

(In fact, the only way to ensure people don't get rid of incumbents when they are unhappy is to ensure people don't blame them for their unhappiness, but that's a topic for another day).

What they really fear is what others will find out about them that they don't want them to know. If anonymity gives us the courage to act like the Great and Powerful Oz, Facebook is Toto pulling back the curtain and revealing us for who we really are. 

On one hand, we lost the security we thought we had to speak our minds however we wanted. If we represent a company (and if you own or work for any company, you do, whether you like it or not), this anonymity protected our livelihoods while we ignored the social norms we reserved for work.

Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and every other social media tool out there are still utilities of choice. If we do not want to participate, we are not forced to. As long as they are transparent about what they collect and how they use it, and their experience is still acceptable to you in spite of the presence of advertising, they ought not be punished for running their business in a way that seems to them proper for generating revenue and jobs.

If we don't like it, we are not forced to participate. - Cam Beck

Securing Your data: an important postscript

Facebook's recent embarrassing security SNAFU demonstrates that the bigger threat of gathering this information is the threat of that information being made public, not that "fat-cat corporatists" (a frequent term used to fan the flames of class warfare) might use it to better serve the end user and make a bigger profit. This speaks to the need for companies to secure that information and to be held accountable for not securing it.

This allows the market to take care of the problem without passing new laws to restrict their ability to collect it -- and miss entirely the benefits allowing it would bring.

To wit: because there would be a high price to pay for both securing and not securing certain types of data, companies will be reluctant to collect it. There is an inherent risk involved with collecting it to counterbalance the potential (lucrative) reward for collecting and using it properly.

Say what you want about people who steal electronic information -- they are not stupid. The reason they haven't used their formidable energies to steal your information or mine is that it is not worth their while to do so. But when you add our names to a hundred million other names, locations, likes, dislikes, etc., and it has immediately become a more attractive target.

Even the so-called honest hacker might be tempted if the right opportunity and right circumstances coincided.

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Comments

This video has solidified my decision to never in my life get a Fæcesbook account (or one at any similar for-profit social media corporation.) Thank you

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