Monday, January 17, 2011

Zuckerberg's brave new world

Mark Zuckerberg doesn't care what you think, so long as you keep giving him your private information. Everyone knows that, but it's still interesting to hear him say so himself.

Talking in San Francisco over the weekend at the Crunchie Awards, which recognise technological achievements, the 25 year-old web entrepreneur said: “People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people.”

He went on to say that privacy was no longer a ‘social norm’ and had just evolved over time.

I suppose my opinion doesn't count, since I'm way over 40 and out of touch with the hip new privacy-scorning generation. They don't think like me. Although, truth be told, some of them might come around to my way of thinking after learning of their ways. There have always been things you can do and say among close friends that you can't get away with in public and it's an almost unfathomable leap of utopianism to imagine that will change in one generation. Strangers are happy to rush to judgment based on scanty information; always did, always will.

Those pesky social norms exists for reasons; oftentimes bad reasons, but reasons nonetheless. Zuckerberg doesn't realize that. He sees privacy as just some random fad that some previous generation latched onto for no apparent reason, and that the present generation will discard with no regrets. Since privacy also happens to be a nuisance and impediment to his business model, I'm sure he feels no great incentive to inquire further. He just wants privacy concerns and the squares who value them to fade away into that long good night - or better yet, blink out immediately.

But there are good reasons for valuing privacy. Most of us don't live in tiny little communities where we've known everyone we meet for all of our lives. Instead, we often need to appeal to strangers, strangers who don't know our good qualities and might not spend the time to look past our faults. Hiding your shortcomings and missteps becomes a valuable strategy and failing to do so can really mess with your social life and job prospects. That's where Zuckerberg's analysis* fails: he thinks people will abandon privacy without asking whether or not it is becoming safe for them to do so. The current evidence from employers suggests that it is not. It's the latter norm - the willingness of total strangers to form negative opinions about you, given half a chance - that makes privacy so necessary.

The enlarged world of the internet only exacerbates that problem; you can lose even the chance to put your best foot forward. There are costs to being anonymous, but there are also costs to being too open, and protecting one's privacy - especially retaining the power to determine what you will keep private - is a necessary strategy for balancing those costs. The value of privacy won't change until the cost of being too revealing goes down, where you can expect to encounter generous-minded people who look only for the best in you. And that, I'm afraid, will require a vastly more far-reaching change in human behavior than even Zuckerberg imagines. Brave new world, indeed.

* To the extent that he's truly analyzed privacy concerns; I might be a tad generous using that word in this context.

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