Revisiting “front page of the newspaper” wisdom

I’ve been preparing for my presentation at the Advertising and Marketing Law Conference on 15 October and reading through some materials I’ll probably reference in my slides. One paragraph just stood out for me in Anil Dash’s article “What is Public?“:

The conventional wisdom is “Don’t publish anything on social media that you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of the newspaper.” But this is an absurd and impossible standard. The same tools are being used for person-to-person conversations and for making grand pronouncements to the world, often by the same person at different times. Would we say “Don’t write anything in a sealed letter that you don’t want to see on the front page of the newspaper” simply because the technology exists to read that letter without opening it?

I think the reason this stood out for me is because conventional wisdom is that you shouldn’t publish anything online that you wouldn’t want published on the front page of a newspaper or on a billboard at a busy intersection. It makes sense until you consider that we are using the same platforms to share things privately and publicly.

How many people use Twitter for personal sharing as if they and their Twitter friends are the only people who can see otherwise public updates? They certainly don’t intend for their tweets to be shared with everyone who uses Twitter (until they do) and although Twitter is very public (unless you lock down your profile) many of its users still have this illogical expectation that their tweets are not for public consumption.

If anything, this sort of issue highlights how complex privacy is in this digital age. We face a number of tough questions about how we use social media and what seemingly obvious notions like privacy really mean to us.

Privacy is contextual and social, less legal and technical

Privacy is more than a couple settings and a consent checkbox on a form somewhere. Privacy and publicity seem to be pretty straightforward concepts and, legally, they are treated fairly superficially and defined mechanically. A result of that is a similarly superficial treatment in conversations about privacy and publicity in social and commercial engagements which rarely touches on what privacy really means to us. This leaves us fundamentally confused and conflicted about privacy because we have a deeper sense of what privacy means to us but the typical conversation about privacy lacks the language to describe that deeper sense of it all.

Anil Dash and dana boyd recently published articles on Medium titled “What is Public?” and “What is Privacy?“, respectively, which dive deeper into what publicity and privacy mean to us. If you are interested in what privacy and publicity mean in modern times, you should read both articles carefully:

What Is Public? andWhat Is Privacy?

One of the paragraphs in Dash’s article that stood out for me was this one:

What if the public speech on Facebook and Twitter is more akin to a conversation happening between two people at a restaurant? Or two people speaking quietly at home, albeit near a window that happens to be open to the street? And if more than a billion people are active on various social networking applications each week, are we saying that there are now a billion public figures? When did we agree to let media redefine everyone who uses social networks as fair game, with no recourse and no framework for consent?

I agree more with boyd that privacy is more about social convention. I particularly like this extract from boyd’s article:

The very practice of privacy is all about control in a world in which we fully know that we never have control. Our friends might betray us, our spaces might be surveilled, our expectations might be shattered. But this is why achieving privacy is desirable. People want to be in public, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they want to be public. There’s a huge difference between the two. As a result of the destabilization of social spaces, what’s shocking is how frequently teens have shifted from trying to restrict access to content to trying to restrict access to meaning. They get, at a gut level, that they can’t have control over who sees what’s said, but they hope to instead have control over how that information is interpreted. And thus, we see our collective imagination of what’s private colliding smack into the notion of public. They are less of a continuum and more of an entwined hairball, reshaping and influencing each other in significant ways.

I also think this next extract nicely captures why people become angry with brands and why reputational harm happens at an emotional level. If you represent a brand, you should read this a few times:

When powerful actors, be they companies or governmental agencies, use the excuse of something being “public” to defend their right to look, they systematically assert control over people in a way that fundamentally disenfranchises them. This is the very essence of power and the core of why concepts like “surveillance” matter. Surveillance isn’t simply the all-being all-looking eye. It’s a mechanism by which systems of power assert their power. And it is why people grow angry and distrustful. Why they throw fits over being experimented on. Why they cry privacy foul even when the content being discussed is, for all intents and purposes, public.

Privacy is contextual. Law is also a poor mechanism for protecting it because law tends to be mechanical (it has to be). What we need more is a better awareness of what privacy and publicity mean in a social context and where the line is.

Jeff Jarvis made a statement about privacy in This Week in Google 261 which really caught my attention:

Privacy is a responsibility. It is an ethic of knowing someone else’s information.

Photo credit: Lost in Translation by kris krüg, licensed CC BY-SA 2.0

Changing privacy norms

Stuff that appeals to me today-18

In many respects, privacy and the social Web or antithetical notions. The social web, is by definition, requires degrees of publicity while conventional notions about privacy encourage secrecy. One of the fundamental shifts in privacy, as a concept, is what it has come to mean on the social Web. Many people, when they think about what privacy means to them, they think of privacy and secrecy and that greater privacy means less of their personal information is made available to the public on the Internet. This is not the dominant privacy model on the Web and this is, I believe, the source of considerable consternation.

Privacy online is more about having a meaningful degree of control over what personal information is disclosed, to whom that personal information is disclosed and what their personal information is used for. This is an idea known as informational self-determination and it has become the dominant privacy model on the social Web and the catalyst for much of its growth.

Opinions about what degree of privacy we have online vary in influenced largely by whether the person expressing the opinion understands privacy as a secrecy model or in terms of informational self-determination. Those who see privacy as being about secrecy have made some fairly bold assertions about the extent to which privacy even exists in the context of a global, connected and digital sharing platform where billions of people spend hours a day sharing their thoughts, their content and the daily experiences with people who, but for their published personas, would otherwise be strangers. In 1999, then CEO of Sun Microsystems, Scott McNealy famously declared: “You have zero privacy anyway … Get over it.”. In 2009, when interviewed by CNBC’s Maria Martiromo, then Google CEO, Eric Schmidt stated

If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.

Of course this created quite a storm because Google is practically the poster boy for a private Big Brother that knows everything we do only and profits from it commercially. Whether Google does this or not, is largely irrelevant. Public perception is that Google is a company to be regarded with healthy doses of scepticism even as it remains enormously popular. At the very least, Google collects a tremendous amount of data from the public Web just in the process of indexing and “organising” the Web. After all, Google’s mission statement is to do just this:

Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.

When you add social services like Facebook, Twitter and, more recently, Google+ to the mix, privacy as secrecy is limited to those who have never ventured onto the Web or (and this is as important) have never had any of their personal information shared on the Web either. For the rest of us, privacy is about whether we can meaningfully manage or even have a say over what is done with our personal information.

Brian Solis recently wrote a terrific article titled “Erosion of Privacy and the Rise of Publicness” where he explores a growing shift towards greater publicity online:

Facebook and socialized media encourage participation and increasing aspects of publicness in exchange for a form of recompense. We are compelled to share information for the instant reward of reaction and linkage. These exchanges serve as currency and set the framework for a social economy where capital is earned and spent in public markets. Experts agree citing economic implications where the value of privacy and publicity have flipped.
Sam Lessin, founder of astutely captured this socio-economical shift when he spoke at a recent gathering of technology entrepreneurs in New York, “Privacy was once free. Publicity was once ridiculously expensive. Now the opposite is true: You have to pay in a mix of cash, time, social capital, etc. if you want privacy.”

With the prevalence of freely accessible social networks, one of the new truisms of the social Web was expressed by a user known as blue_beetle in a discussion thread on MetaFilter in 2010: “If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.”

The dominant social networks today exist because we, as users, share a tremendous amount of our personal information using these services. This personal information includes our gender, age, location, interests, opinions, connections to each other and more. All of this information is extremely valuable to advertisers who are adapting to a very different advertising model which is more collaborative and dynamic than the more traditional (and impersonal) display and print based advertising model. On the social Web, brands can target their advertising on-the-fly and based on our particular preferences which we express every time we publish a post or update on a social service. One service which does is particularly well is Facebook which presents advertising which adapts to what are we talking about any given point in time.

Clear evidence of the shift towards a privacy model based on informational self-determination, as opposed to secrecy, is in the privacy policies governing these various services. These policies focus on variable privacy settings, where available, and the extent to which we, as users, consent to a social service collecting and making use of our personal information for various purposes. Further evidence of the shift is in services which prefer publicity to secrecy when you sign up and create your profile (Facebook is known to set profile defaults to more public settings for new users signing up for the service). This practice, coupled with most people’s relative ignorance of the law and even the privacy settings available to them on the service which they are signing up for, facilitate greater publicity than many users would otherwise opt for.

The extent to which these social services interact and interconnect with each other means that content and personal information can spread far further than the service which a user is engaged with at that particular time.

Of course a significant contributing factor is a growing willingness to share despite the privacy implications because sharing means far better interaction and more immediate benefits. As Solis pointed out –

In social networks, we are the architects of our experiences and also the personal impressions we create and display for others to interpret. I believe that the empowerment in social networking is evident in the confidence we gain from participating online and sharing personal aspects, thoughts, vulnerabilities, and knowledge. We’re inspired to amplify what we share based on the responses we engender. We receive rewards as a result of meaningful engagement, which range from comments, accolades, shares, likes, posts, bookmarks and most importantly, requests for new connections. Over time, how we participate online equates to varying levels of trust, respect, friendship, and relationships – each representative of social capital.