Internet Ethics: Views From Silicon Valley
Singing in the Shower
Privacy in the Age of Facebook
The amount and kinds of information that people post on Facebook does not mean that people don't care about privacy.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that the amount and kinds of information that people post on Facebook mean that people don’t care about privacy.
Like many other “truths” universally acknowledged, this one is wrong, in a number of ways.
First, not everybody is on Facebook. So to justify, say, privacy-invasive online behavioral advertising directed at everyone on the Internet by pointing to the practices of a subset of Internet users is wrong.
Second, it’s wrong to generalize about “Facebook users,” too. Many Facebook users take advantage of various privacy settings and use the platform to interact only with friends and family members. So it makes sense for them to post on Facebook the kind of personal, private things that people have always shared with friends and family.
Still—most Facebook users have hundreds of “friends”: some are close; some are not; some are relatives barely known; some are friends who have grown distant over time. Does it make sense to share intimate things with all of them?
There are several answers to that, too. The privacy boundaries that people draw around themselves vary. What may seem deeply intimate and private to one person might not seem that way to someone else—and vice versa. That doesn’t mean that people who post certain things “don’t care about privacy”—it means they would define “private” differently than others would. And even when people do post things that they would consider intimate on Facebook, that doesn’t mean they post everything. Some people like singing in choirs; that doesn’t mean they’d be OK with being spied on while singing in the shower.
Third, we need to acknowledge the effects of the medium itself. Take, say, a Facebook user who has 200 “friends.” Were all those friends to be collected in one room (the close and the distant friends, the old and the recently befriended, the co-workers, the relatives, the friends of friends whose “friend requests” were accepted simply to avoid awkwardness, etc.), and were the user to be given a microphone, he or she might refrain from announcing what he ate for dinner, or reciting a song lyric that ran through her mind, or revealing an illness or a heartbreak, or subjecting the entire audience to a slide show of vacation pictures. But for the Facebook user sitting alone in a room, facing a screen, the audience is at least partially concealed. He or she knows that it’s there—is even hoping for some comments in response to posts—or at least some “likes”… But the mind conjures, at best, a subset of the tens or hundreds of those “friended.” If that. Because there is, too, something about the act of typing a “status update” that echoes, for some of us, the act of writing in a journal. (Maybe a diary with a friendly, ever-shifting companion Greek chorus?) The medium misleads.
So no, people who post on Facebook are not being hypocritical when they say (as most people do) that they care about privacy. (It bears noting that in a recent national survey by the Pew Research Center, 86% of internet users said they had “taken steps online to remove or mask their digital footprints.”)
It’s high time to let the misleading cliché about privacy in the age of Facebook go the way of other much-repeated statements that turned out to be neither true nor universally acknowledged. And it’s certainly time to stop using it as a justification for practices that violate privacy. If you haven’t been invited to join the singer in the shower, stay out.