The Social Web & the Value of Keeping Things Private

As the social web — and increasingly, the geo-aware web — make our lives more public, we are having to (quickly!) figure out how and how not to share the more private parts of our lives online.

Facebook last week updated its settings to make certain user data public by default — and thus more searchable and monetizable. It served largely to tick people off, especially given that the features were advertised as a way for users to define their privacy on a more granular level. Some folks like Dan Gillmor took the extreme step of deleting their existing accounts. Still, Gillmor didn’t walk away from the site, but instead created a new account with privacy controls with which he felt comfortable.

Meanwhile, MG Siegler at TechCrunch has a post up today that’s mostly about Foursquare, specifically how the service is becoming less useful to him as he adds more friends on it. Siegler talks of peer pressure to build a bigger friend set, and certainly that may be a challenge he and others face. But he actually says he doesn’t want Foursquare to get smarter and more targeted (and more complicated, like Facebook) because he’s concerned that the site grow as fast as it can so it can be viable. He thinks the site stands the best chance of competing if it can become as big as possible, and calls it “location’s social paradox.”

However (and somewhere deep down, Facebook must know this), not every social web service will grow like Twitter, a case in which both users and the company have thrived by becoming more public over time. Especially for the hot-hot-hot emerging category of location-aware services, there is an opportunity to be more intimate and also more useful. Though being a Twitter celebrity is fun, ultimately the services that provide reciprocal relationships will be the most valuable. So I don’t think location has a social paradox, because it’s exactly the kind of sharing that is most useful when it’s done with your actual friends. Right now there’s an early adopter problem, but that will change.

Our concept of privacy is eroding as we share more and see the benefits of it. Soon there will be just too much personal data out there for people to get huffy about letting any one private detail escape. But there’s a very real value to sharing in small groups, especially for information as sensitive as a person’s exact location in real time, as on Foursquare. As we face the strengthening force of information overload, friend connections are a valuable filter. That’s also how a location-based social service, if done right, can monetize better than a larger existing local business directory like Yelp. Intersecting where we are and who we know should become an amazing approximation of what we want.

Today we may limit our personal sharing because we’re worried about privacy, but tomorrow it will be because we’re having problems coping with overwhelming reciprocal information. Though Facebook is trying to throw open the doors a bit, real-world relationships are its core, and users still find value in their actual friends. The social networking site said itself that before last week, only 15-20 percent of its users had ever changed anything about their privacy settings. The web as a whole needs to get smarter at filtering, and we as social web users are going to start to realize the value of helping it out.

Please see the disclosure in my bio about Facebook. Lead picture by Flickr user law_keven.