I’ve been going through some of the posts to come out of this year’s SXSW conference that had anything to do with the issue of privacy; especially after Danah Boyd’s great keynote speech. It is reassuring to know that some-one of Danah’s stature may still believe that privacy is alive and well, except that nothing she or others say changes the fact that privacy on the web is the last thing that social media companies want.
Sure they all mouth the same old platitudes about how they respect your privacy rights; but the fact is that none of these companies could survive a day without the constant flow of personal information that pulses through their networks. While a large majority of people live with the illusion that they consciously control the information about themselves that they put out there on services like Facebook, Twitter, Buzz, and yes even the search engines we use, the fact is we don’t control anything.
We can actually be easily forgiven for believing that there is any kind of granular type of (public) privacy as we really look at the web as just an extension of our day to day real lives – which of course is exactly how all these companies what us to think of it as.
It’s also important to remember that private and public are also not always clear binary opposites. While technology often makes it looks like this, in real life, things tend to get a lot messier. If you are out in a café, for example, you are in a public space, but you expect a certain community to be there – while you don’t expect others to be there – and you still expect a certain degree of privacy while you are talking to your friends.
The problem is that the financial survival of companies that provide all these different types of social interaction platforms (or as Danah Boyd differentiates them: articulated networks (address books, Facebook, Twitter), behavioral networks (based on common behavior, location, etc.) and personal networks) is completely at odds with any kind of privacy – let alone the granular type.
Companies like Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Gowalla, Blippy, and any of the other hundreds of wannabe social media networks have only one single source of income. I don’t care how you slice or dice it; or how much PR crapola you pile on it – these companies only make money from our constant use of their services. It is that constant flow of data that is collected, correlated, mashed up with data from other sources and then put through a strainer for advertisers and marketers to feast upon – for a pretty penny at that.
Sure we like to think that even within a system like Facebook or Twitter our conversations and other sharing is … well .. semi-private – at best. Much like a group of friends sitting in Starbucks having a coffee together and sharing news and events with each other. Unconsciously we all know that there is a good chance we will be overheard but common social decency predicates that even though we are talking in public those not directly involved in the group will treat our conversations with some modicum of privacy.
This isn’t the case when it comes to services like Facebook or Twitter. The truth is they hear everything and record all those millions of conversations and it those conversations when aggregated make them a piss-pot full of money. The only time this breaks down is when they are forced to live up to the illusion of respecting your privacy through whatever controls they put in place for you to regulate just what it is they are allowed to collect and sell.
So it behooves these companies to do everything they can to change our perceptions of what privacy means and to remove any impediments to more and more posting of personal activity. After all the richer the data stream is with the personal goings and comings of the people using the service the more value that data stream has. This is why companies like Facebook do whatever they can to rollback privacy setting or Buzz launches with the floodgate literally open. After all what do they have to lose – a little PR bump if the outrage spreads too far.
The fact of the matter is that none, and I mean none, of these social media companies have one iota of interest in preserving our antiquated assumptions of what privacy is. They need us to believe that privacy as we think of it is a dead concept. They need us to believe that it’s okay to share everything with everyone.
They need privacy to die in order to survive because after all there is just too much money to be made to let such an archaic concept exist.