Monday, May 31, 2010

Facebook, Privacy, Small Town America, and a Village of 6,830,000,000 people

"What if the Facebook (Un)Privacy Revolution Is a Good Thing?"
Epicenter, Wired (May 29, 2010)

" 'How could Mark Zuckerberg run such an important company like Facebook and be such a screw up?' That's effectively the question I've gotten almost non-stop for the past few weeks. 'Is this going to blow up the company?' 'Are Zuckerberg's apologies genuine?' And on and on.

"The questions are rooted in this: Facebook revised its privacy settings a few weeks ago and made them mind-numbingly complicated. With so much personal information on their pages, users freaked out. They worried that the default settings were wrong, but that changing them risked making things worse.

"Zuckerberg was forced to apologize; and earlier this week, in an effort to calm the furor, Zuckerberg said he was changing Facebook to make its privacy settings easier to use. That perennial question is starting to make the rounds again — Is Zuckerberg, at 26, too young to run such a big company?

"The truth is that the events of the past few weeks have been no accident. I've interviewed Zuckerberg and/or members of his team more than a dozen times in the last three years, and I believe they all completely understood the company's new privacy settings would be controversial. Indeed, I think they intended them to be controversial. Look back at the history of Facebook's privacy firestorms — they happen roughly every 18 months — and you'll see they all fit the same pattern. In order for Facebook to succeed, it needs to keep challenging existing conventions about online privacy. This isn't a secret. Zuckerberg has said it many times. What he hasn't said – but which he and anyone else with a brain knows – is that there is no way to do that without making some users angry...."

The rest of the article gives an interesting - and possibly accurate - view of why Facebook acts the way it does. I don't know enough about the workings of the company to have an opinion about the author's assertions.

I do, however, have a Facebook account - and a somewhat counter-cultural view of "privacy."

First, I think that when many people say "privacy," what they mean is closer to "anonymity:" being in contact with other people, without their ever knowing quite who - or what - they're communicating with. I think I can understand why someone would want to be an anonymous, faceless, semi-entity in a vast throng of other almost-people. Can't say that's a condition I'd want, though.

Then there's the sort of "privacy" I enjoy here in the small town in central Minnesota where I live. Maybe you've heard the gag about life in a small town: 'if you can't remember what you've done during the day, ask someone. They'll know.'

The downside of living like that is that you can't have a bizarrely unconventional lifestyle without the rest of the town knowing about it. The upside is that this isn't one of those places where a moving van can back up to your house, pack all your possessions inside, and leave - without someone starting to ask questions.

Then there's the time some hapless fool robbed a bank in a small North Dakota town. In winter. But I'm getting off-topic.

The point is that, even here in small town America, I've got "privacy." In the sense that I can go about my business without interference: providing that I keep the yard mowed, and wear seasonally-appropriate attire when outside, of course. But my identity and to some extent my actions are known to anybody in town who's interested.

It's not like living in a city - but I've gotten used to it.

Facebook? I've applied the same principle there, that I've applied in every other online community - never mind their TOS or privacy policy. I have never put something about myself online, that I wouldn't mind all 6,830,000,000 or so of the people I share this world with knowing about it.

Barring a few details like credit card numbers. Again with the small-town analogy: Everybody in town known me, but only my wife and some bank employees can get at our financial data. And only members of the family have keys to the house and vehicles.

'Lack of privacy' doesn't bother me - not in the town of about 4,000 where I live, or in the community of some fraction of 6,830,000,000 that I'm virtually a part of.


Brigid said...

Is that URL supposed to be at the end of the post?

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Brian, aka Aluwir, aka Norski said...


Not at all. Haven't a clue how it got there - apart from the obvious 'I must have pasted it by mistake.'

Thanks for catching that!

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