Do we or do we not want privacy?
Benn Rosales wrote here on Agent Genius an article entitled, “Do we have a reasonable right to privacy using social media?” and it got me pondering on the issue of privacy. You should stop now and read Benn’s article, I’ll wait… the premise is that phones have the equivalent of an opt out method (the Do Not Call List) while social media outlets have ways to hide user data but there is no universal “opt out” button that disallows Google to see your information.
This article was originally published on December 04, 2009.
For example, my Twitter account is private, but Google my name and my Twitter profile is pretty high on the list of results.
So I’ve been deeply thinking tonight about what exactly privacy is. Is it natural for humans to want privacy? Is it in our DNA to hold secrets or to have trust issues with those outside of our circle of trust? If so, then why do people go on reality tv and act like themselves (in other words, act like idiots) or profess their problems to Maury Povich or publish pictures of themselves drunk at lingerie parties on Facebook or tell everyone on Twitter that they have E.D. (yes, I’ve seen all of these things). Is this a specific subset of our culture that feels the need to be very public with very private matters or is it part of who we are as a people?
In researching the topic, I came across an article published today by Dr. Helen E. Fisher, Evolutionary Studies Research Professor at Rutgers University succinctly described how humans perceive “privacy”:
How could our forebears have enjoyed any privacy living in their little hunting and gathering bands? Sure, couples undoubtedly wandered off to make love in secluded places; nowhere do humans copulate in public regularly. Even where men and women are ‘housebound,’ as the traditional Eskimos were in the Arctic winter, a loving pair waited until their companions were asleep before having sex. Ancestral hunters often hunted alone; some still do. So our forebears had some privacy.
But daily life was communal. Our ancestros [sic] lived and ate and prayed and talked and danced together. And everybody must have known just about everything about everybody else. But this lack of privacy undoubtedly had payoffs: If all your relatives and friends knew your secrets, these companions would also be inclined to support your causes, feel your pains, and celebrate your joys. Communal living gave people support and comfort. Perhaps this is what these folks on these TV shows also seek: community. Facebook, Twitter, email, reality TV, blogs: these are probably more forms of community-building that we pursue “naturally”—a primordial impulse to share our lives in our mercurial world.
Privacy in social networks
Thinking of it in historical terms, does it make sense why people are naturally drawn to social networks? I think we all have some level of voyeurism naturally because who isn’t affirmed by watching Nanny 911 or Jerry Springer and saying, “wow, I’m so much better than that” or reading Facebook status updates and seeing that other agents are struggling to get loans approved just like you are. I think we are drawn to community in whatever form that takes.
As a culture, we learn to take common sense steps toward guarding ourselves and protecting our families, and it appears that human nature is to form community and sacrifice privacy but I maintain Benn’s assertion that we should be able to opt out which is why I predict that the first step will be that in 2010 you’ll see more people increase their privacy settings on Facebook and go private on Twitter while social network providers will be pressured to increase privacy options such as users being invisible to search engines and directories altogether because based on our research, our information is being shared whether the consumer realizes it or not.
As agents, how public does public need to be? We take massive risk in telegraphing our physical whereabouts and despite privacy settings, predators can message our children via Facebook without even being their friend. Branding is essential and being public on social networks is not a fad, it’s a shift in communication, but I personally believe it’s okay to be private on Twitter. My personal account on Twitter is private but our business accounts are not which is our way of reminding ourselves to be cautious in different settings. Private accounts are the equivalent of being in my tribal community and if I don’t like it, I can leave. Beyond all that, databases are collecting and categorizing social networking status updates now for “harmless” uses such as HR research or law enforcement (per Benn’s article), but what happens when a private entity wants to buy these databases and use them for God knows what? Privacy is sacrificed for community and has been for eternity and the payoffs are so great, but social network providers must provide more privacy options so that we broadcast what we want to who we want.
UPDATE: the Electronic Frontier Foundation has filed suit against the Department of Justice and five other governmental agencies for cloaking how they use social networks to investigate citizens for criminal and civil matters. The suit demands that the agencies make public their methods. Full report on eweek.com.