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Privacy is Hard Because People Change Their Minds

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If there’s one issue that unites major Internet giants like Google (s goog) and Facebook, it’s privacy. Google tries to offer a new service with Buzz, and triggers a series of privacy land mines; Facebook tries to offer new services and runs afoul of privacy concerns as well, then it changes its privacy settings and (according to some) makes the problem worse instead of better. Why is privacy so hard? Sociologist Danah Boyd, who specializes in the way people use social networks, says in the latest issue of MIT’s Technology Review magazine that it’s because “the way privacy is encoded into software doesn’t match the way we handle it in real life.”

Privacy settings are often binary: show this photo to these people, but not this update, and so on. Check a box, click a button. But the real world allows for many shades of grey when it comes to privacy, says Boyd. If you happen to be in a restaurant having a meal with someone, for example, you both know implicitly that you’re in public and therefore whatever you do is public by default, without having to click on any terms-of-use agreements or read pop-up disclosure statements. At the same time, you can easily lean close to the other person and whisper a word or two privately. As Boyd describes it:

We count on what Erving Goffman called “civil inattention”: people will politely ignore us, and even if they listen they won’t join in, because doing so violates social norms. Of course, if a close friend sits at the neighboring table, everything changes. Whether an environment is public or not is beside the point. It’s the situation that matters.

In other words, we all view privacy differently based on the situation we’re in, the other people around us and our relationships with them, our goals and desires within that particular situation, and so on. These things combine to create a complex web of competing pressures and incentives related to whether we keep something private or not: a web so complex that it makes a mockery of the various tools that most services such as Facebook use to help you manage your privacy. Even the ability to create specific lists of friends who have access to certain things quickly becomes cumbersome, as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has acknowledged. However, Facebook has to make the attempt because it is being pressured by both users and governments over the issue.

At the other end of the spectrum is a site like 4chan, where founder Christopher “Moot” Poole has pursued a defiantly anonymous approach to community, by allowing almost total freedom for users to post content without any repercussions whatsoever. The result is a kind of anything-goes Wild West atmosphere — as described, coincidentally enough, in another piece in the latest issue of Technology Review magazine. This kind of community can also have some positive aspects as well, as Poole argued in a recent presentation at the TED conference (embedded below). Anonymity can often allow people to do constructive things as well as destructive things.

So how do we go about managing our multiple online selves and our constantly shifting spectrum of privacy demands? Some companies are trying to make it easier for users to take an ad-hoc approach to divulging privacy information such as location, for example. A startup called EchoEcho offers a service that allows you to request someone’s location quickly and easily, and they can decide to tell you or not, depending on where they are, what they’re doing, and what relationship you have with them. EchoEcho founder Nick Bicanic says this makes it easier for people to change their minds on who they want to tell, rather than just constantly broadcasting their location to everyone.

As Liz has described, however, privacy isn’t just a technical problem, and it isn’t just a business problem. It’s also a cultural problem and to some extent an educational or behavioral problem. And it’s one that’s likely to get harder before it gets easier.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d): Why New Net Companies Must Shoulder More Responsibility

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user hyku

11 Responses to “Privacy is Hard Because People Change Their Minds”

  1. I designed a privacy aware, targeted advertising platform, that addresses a very personal, real life need not met by today’s Internet. We all want to access, explore and learn from a full range of possible relationships…professional, social, sports, cultural, etc. But it is impossible and impractical to relate to everyone. Nor would we want to. We want to choose what parts of our “inner-self” we share and with whom we share it.

    Just as marketers want to reach a well-defined subset of individuals on the this platform, users know something about who they are connecting with. And the users mutually decide, as in their real lives, what parts of their passions, thoughts and personalities they want to share and relate with…anonymously or otherwise, one-on-one or as part of a like-minded group.

    Does that work for you?

  2. There’s nothing hard about privacy. Everyone, unless they suffer from certain personality disorders, knows what privacy is and what it means to respect the privacy of others. Companies who choose to violate people’s privacy for profit do so knowing full well exactly what they are doing. So let’s not pretend there’s anything difficult about this issue. The only thing difficult these days is not having your privacy violated by companies who have financial motivation to do so.

  3. Odd I See

    Human nature and relationships rely on the inclusion of levels of deception. Society wouldn’t function without this ability.

    The privacy, or lack of privacy settings, run afoul of the essential need to incorporate layers of deception in our social engagements. Deception is not necessarily a “negative,” we can look to many historical and fictional heroes who live and die by their ability to successfully implement creative deceptions.

    Human nature is not going to change. So, create a digital equivalent or run the risk that our digital personas will all be false, since we will never allow our true selves to be shown, without the ability to incorporate our deceptive qualities within them. The fact is that our current Facebook-selves are less honest entirely because of our ability to incorporate dishonesty in them.

    • interesting point but I’m not sure we’re having the same discussion….

      on some fundamental level it’s impossible to disagree because the most historically basic form of human relationship (i.e. face to face communication) carries with it a form of deception…here loosely defined as the difference between exactly what you think and what you say.

      However the senses at play here in real-life face to face communication (eyes, ears, nose etc) have evolved to such a degree that we naturally process hundreds of minute sociological cues so (if we’re paying attention) we can sometimes tell if a person is lying, uncomfortable, happy, distracted etc etc…

      Those centuries old lessons simply don’t exist in digital social networks e.g. facebook so we have to slowly learn new ones (i.e. the signalling methods change both for sender and recipient)…

      But the issue with privacy settings is not that they promote deception – what’s promoting deception here is the distancing of our communication from the historical methods that we’re more familiar with “reading”.

      I do agree however that privacy settings are an aspect of communication that facilitate us mimicking a real world interaction and as such…they should be more momentary than baked-in.

      I go into a bit more detail here

  4. The problem here is that on the issue of privacy it is no defense to ‘fail forward fast’ and open the doors on someone’s privacy and then give them the keys to shut it later. Or in my opinion and because privacy is personal; ‘opt out as a default is like raping someone and then offering them a belt to keep their pants up.’

  5. thanks for the name check mathew ;) nice roundup. Danah is bang on as usual…and as you said…any sort of online privacy implications multiply when thinking about location (since there’s of course a big difference between 1000 friends knowing what you thought of Scott Pilgrim and knowing where you live and work.

    on a mildly lighter note – check out this link for a little bit of location privacy humour (entirely SFW) –

  6. Only way to overcome the privacy concerns in social networking is to handle them in real time. Instead of providing the default settings with the platforms, networking websites need to provide customized privacy settings which can be set according to an individual’s need.

    • hey Chethan – yes but…the problem with overdoing the privacy settings is that even if you solve the problem “technically” you still don’t solve the problem.

      socially speaking many people’s comfort/desire to share certain things varies not just with person/time of day/context/mood/need – but all of the above and often at the same time.

      which means that even you get the defaults right – you still have to keep going into your privacy settings to modify them all the time. Danah’s point (and echoecho’s) is that sharing could be made more of an on-the-fly thing – or at the very least if you are going to burn in some privacy preferences – make them as easy to turn on and off as possible…that’s why we spent quite a bit of time tweaking the autoreply settings for echoecho –