I'm here at the South by Southwest opening keynote address. It's a full house for Danah Boyd, social media researcher at Microsoft Research New England and a fellow at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society. The subject: privacy and publicity.
Boyd is an ethnographer who spends a good deal of time trying to understand how people use social media in their daily lives. Her goal today: to get us to think about a specific set of puzzles she's been working on related to privacy and publicity.
Privacy is not dead.
What privacy means may not be what you think, Boyd argues. Privacy equals control, and when people believe they don't have control, they feel their privacy has been violated.
Consider the recent launch of Google Buzz, which has been amply documented. Says Boyd, "Nothing that the team did was technologically wrong; there were plenty of opt-outs, but it created a PR disaster."
So what actually happened?
"Google juxtaposed something that is very private with something that is very public," Boyd explains. It wasn't the technology, but the expectations that were out of sync, so people were confused and didn't understand the proposition. "They won't watch your video; you need to ease them in." The major mistake here? Forgetting the social rituals that govern people's behavior. Mistaking optimizing an experience for actually improving it. "And If you break that process," she says, "people will flip out."
So just because people put information on the Internet, it doesn't mean that they want it to be aggregated and/or publicized. If you doubt that, take a look at the recent Onion piece: Google responds to privacy concerns with unsettlingly specific apology. Context is incredibly important. Online environments are nowhere near as stable or mature as offline environments, and as a culture we are still working through how all of this works.
The recent privacy issues with Facebook came about because people didn't understand that defaults had been changed. As a result, 65% of Facebook users made their Facebook profiles public. Boyd says she's interviewed a number of people about their privacy settings, and found that none of them actually knew what their privacy settings were.
This can have real-world consequences, as with the teen whose father had recently been released from jail, and who created with her mother's consent a very private, protected Facebook profile. Yet once the privacy defaults changed, she unknowingly opted in to an open profile. Was this an acceptable trade-off, Boyd asks? She doesn't think so.
Privacy is Control
Most people don't necessarily understand how their content can be aggregated. Have you heard of the Please Rob Me site?
So how public are we willing to be? How vulnerable are we if information about us is made public?
Take for example your child's teacher. Can she post pictures of herself out drinking with her friends? Can she have an online dating profile? It's great to say that everyone should be comfortable in public, but online is a different, more rigid medium. And many people can be put at risk if information about them is made more public than it already was.
And yet there is a site called chatroulette, on which people share all sorts of personal confessions. It's control. not exposure, that's the issue.
So where does this all lead? Boyd offers a few points of advice:
- For technologists, when you move from the Web 1.0 to the Web 2.0 world, you have to take into account what people expect and want--not just what the technology makes possible.
- For parents, the worst thing you can do is to start the conversation about online privacy with "Back in my day..." You need to understand what control means in this environment. You need to ask: what are you trying to achieve? Whom do you think you're talking to? How would you feel if someone saw this?
- For marketers and analysts: just because you are able to see somebody doesn't mean they want to be seen by you.
Finally, Boyd says, privacy is not about wanting to hide; sometimes it's about wanting to create a space to open up. As a result, we need to make an effort to understand people's intentions, what they're trying to do, and how they'll make sense of it. We need to think about the ethics of what we're doing.
"You're shaping the future," Boyd concludes. "Your choices today will shape a generation. Make sure that you are creating the future you want to live in."
Photo courtesy danah.org.