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Psychologist weighs in on whether or not people want privacy

Do we or do we not want privacy?

privacyBenn 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”:

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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

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Lani is the COO and News Director at The American Genius, has co-authored a book, co-founded BASHH, Austin Digital Jobs, Remote Digital Jobs, and is a seasoned business writer and editorialist with a penchant for the irreverent.



  1. Justin Williams

    December 4, 2009 at 2:11 am

    I do believe there are many holes still in the Privacy Settings of many Social Networks out there. Facebook still has a lot of holes in their privacy settings however they have been working on allowing users to have more control in their settings. Twitter is also a young network and I am sure they will have more privacy features in the future.

    • Lani Rosales

      December 4, 2009 at 2:15 am

      Agreed but I think they better hurry up, given that millions of status updates on all networks happen every single day- that’s a lot of data to give up while they’re farting around trying to figure out the science of privacy settings. Just flip an on/off switch for accounts to be crawled by search engines- it’s OUR choice, not theirs!

  2. Amberausten

    December 4, 2009 at 4:02 am

    Two words,…. OH CRAPPERS

  3. Daniel, the Real Estate Zebra

    December 4, 2009 at 11:57 am

    Privacy is an illusion.

    We all want privacy, but how much of it can we reasonably expect? Take GPS for example:

    People tell me that broadcasting my location could be dangerous. But, anyone can know my location at any time. I don’t travel incognito. If you saw me, you would know exactly where I am. Granted, it does make me easier to find, but it doesn’t change the fact that I can always be found.

    My personal rule for Internet privacy has always been this: Don’t put anything on the Internet that you wouldn’t want the entire world to know about for the rest of eternity.

    The only way you can truly make things private is to keep them to yourself. Once it’s out, it’s out, and free for the world to discover.

    • Lani Rosales

      December 4, 2009 at 12:09 pm

      Good guide to live by. It’s a hard balancing act, but some day it will be as natural to our culture as F2F interaction.

  4. MIssy Caulk

    December 4, 2009 at 11:59 am

    I need to make my Twitter profile, private, not sure why I haven’t. I never watched Jerry Springer, I just couldn’t understand why normal folks would go on and air their dirty laundry.

    Lani, we all “need” community, hence IMO the proliferation of social networks. But we also crave privacy, hence the cocooning at home. It’ funny you can be at home in your P.J.s and yet still have community with your online friends.

    I can see totally have as humans we need and desire both, what I have trouble with is the to quote you, “databases are collecting and categorizing social networking status updates now for “harmless” uses such as HR research or law enforcement”.

    Now that is over the top invasion of privacy.

    • Lani Rosales

      December 4, 2009 at 12:13 pm

      Missy, when I went private, you would have thought I kicked a puppy- there was criticism by many in the “” and in my own city but over time, I’ve noticed others following suit as privacy options change and people realize what they’re putting out there. I was told people wouldn’t follow me which has been proven to be the opposite. Some of those same critics have softened their views and several of them are now private as well. Trust me, I’m a digital native and don’t care much about privacy- we were taught early on that there is no such thing… that said, I understand that I can create my own community and that it doesn’t have to include every person on the planet (that’s not community, that’s called the Internet).

      Regarding databses, Benn knows a lot more about that than I do but that’s pretty scary. Inevitable but scary. Can you imagine being served a lawsuit via a Facebook message? A court has upheld that as a legal way to serve, can you believe it? I hate to call for regulation because I’m not a big fan of gov involvement, but come on, it has GOT to be addressed (and I believe it is currently being considered at the Hill).

  5. Benn Rosales

    December 4, 2009 at 12:43 pm

    I can create my own community and that it doesn’t have to include every person on the planet (that’s not community, that’s called the Internet). Brilliant and exactly the point! Families getting online to connect with family didn’t ask to be entered into other directories, consumer protection is paramount over profit!

  6. Lani Rosales

    December 4, 2009 at 5:24 pm

    As a sidenote, this is a great handbook for parents/teachers to use with their children regarding online privacy and it applies to adults too- it’s an interesting breakdown:

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