The Privacy Factor

At some point in our digital evolution many of us traded privacy for ego. What I mean by that is that it became more intriguing, more tantalizing, to reveal our selves (or how we imagine ourselves) to the rest of the world rather than internalize our lives a bit more or share them with an immediate sphere of people (guilty as charged, as I've previously revealed).

In the virtual worlds we can receive a broad spectrum of feedback and approval and encouragement in a brief period of time in a way that's simply not possible in the real one. And it's worth noting that privacy is not the same thing as secrecy. What we deem unfit for public consumption may still be something we share with our closest (real-life) friend. But our avatar or alter ego saw social networks as a chance to feel justified or accepted or vindicated. And if you think your social network profile doesn't exemplify some of those tendencies then go through your list of friends and count how many you see on a regular basis or know really well or have ever met in person. Why do they each receive the same sentiments?

Protecting our personal information used to mean ensuring that an e-commerce transaction was secure or not revealing your full name on a particular newsgroup site. Of course this process didn't happen overnight and you could argue that we need to get with the program and move on. (The seamless, subtle nature is perhaps largely why we accepted it without much protest.)

That's certainly the argument that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg made in early January when he told a group of reporters and analysts that, in essence, the age of privacy is over. Zuckberg says that internet users have become comfortable sharing all sorts of information and "more openly and with more people" than ever before, referring to it as the new "social norm."

When you read that are you a) nodding your head in agreement, b) shocked and appalled, c) wondering where the time went or d) all of the above. Towards the end, I feel into "d." Kinda scary. What I mean is that many people have relaxed their own barriers on personal information but when someone calls them out, well, it's a bit unsettling. The test of whether you'd stand in front of your colleagues and yell anything you post online is one that still holds true. And yet I doubt many people run that test anymore before posting a status update or sending a Tweet. Think about it.

The notion of the Internet weakening our hold on privacy ideals is nothing new. It was back in 1999 that Sun co-founder Scott McNealy was famously quoted saying: "You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it." Well, perhaps in many ways we have "gotten over it." We share photos, we post phone numbers, we voice opinions. And on the surface there seem to be very few drawbacks, if any. What's the big deal if we expose more of our lives? We're sharing that stuff with people and learning more about them along the way. It seems the rare occasion when someone's personal identity is stolen (although of course it still happens at an alarming rate) or there's an overzealous person following your every move or you get hit with an unsolicited message or request.

So why worry? The 21st century means swimming in a sea of data every day. Who needs a life preserver? Well, I can tell you one reason we don't need a life preserver-- because the vast majority of that data is rather shallow. Sure, it's of interest to marketers and software companies (and don't be fooled-- they love knowing every little detail about your social network habits and decision). But it's also a lot of naval-gazing and drunken party photos and grandstanding.

And yet those tidbits can be intensely personal (not to mention embarrassing). One of the most popular technology stories on The New York Times Web site is titled 3 Facebook Setting Every User Should Check Now." And guess what? They're all related to making your profile MORE private not less private. So clearly there's an appetite for keeping the shutters drawn on our online living room. But while we may block out the obvious interlopers (switching settings from "Everyone" to "Friends Only") it's a slippery slope when we receive friend requests from random strangers or little-known family members. The temptation to share with someone new or see what their lives are like is pretty powerful. It's like we simultaneously tap into our weakness for voyeurism and vanity. Now, it goes without saying that not everyone gets sucked in to the social network vortex. And there are plenty of people to manage their internet profiles with better precision than I did.

But the question of balancing privacy is parallel to the question of balancing relationships. My point here is that sacrificing privacy has coincided with sacrificing the quality of relationship interactions. We're letting the desire for recognition replace the desire for reflection. Granted, we're also guilty of letting our handheld devices (iPhone, BlackBerry, laptop, etc.) get in the way of physical intimacy but that's another chapter altogether (more later).

But let's back up for a minute. Did you join Facebook because it allowed you to connect with people you'd otherwise forgotten about? Why did you want them back in your life? Did you join Facebook because it let you keep in touch better with friends and family? Were they complaining before 2006? Why fill a void that didn't exist? I say it's largely because Facebook and Twitter -- above MySpace and others -- provided a platform that fed our intrinsic hubris without feeling guilty. Yes, we could find out about people's lives. But that personal interaction went from one-on-one time to a drive-by connection. The more people joined the easier it all became to shrug off the criticism of joining.

It was a snowball effect and nothing draws a crowd like a crowd. And as we all asked the same initial questions about "why would I share all this stuff with people?" we all laughed nervously and looked at each other and went ahead and did it anyway. There was safety in numbers and social networks made our concerns seem trivial and like we weren't joining the party. Again, I was just as guilty as the next person when I encouraged my family/friends to join.

When I signed up in March 2007 it was because I was exposed in a dramatic way to the power of Facebook and MySpace to help grieve and unite. That was when Virginia Tech was gripped by fear because of a lone gunman, Seung Hui Cho, as he brazenly and brutally killed 32 people and injured or terrorized dozens and hundreds and even thousands more. That day I was working in New York at the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric and reached out to whoever I could find within the Virginia Tech community. But I didn't have a Facebook account and so I relied upon e-mail addresses available on the paper's site, Planet Blacksburg, which was providing updates to the outside world and served as a lifeline to those wondering what was happening on campus. I ended up doing a webcam interview with one of the students who worked at Planet Blacksburg and later in the week did a story on how Facebook provided a place to express emotions and share memories.

Before that, I didn't understand why I wanted a Facebook page. And as a TV "personality" I worried about revealing too much. But there was no turning back once I signed up and saw how easily connections could be made. And I began encouraging all my friends and family to follow. But a national tragedy that brought so many people together was in many ways the beginning of the end of the quality of my own personal relations.

I set off on this experiment with the hopes of killing my alter ego and boosting my real-life social connections. And caught in the middle of all that is assessing what privacy means and whether I am better off with a closed loop. I think I actually feel better about not sharing my life and my thoughts in such a public manner as social networks. More focused, if that's possible. That said, it's been hard in some ways to resist the urge to post. I occasionally get what I call "social network echoes"-- something happens in my life and I catch myself formulating how I'd write a status update or a Tweet. It seems so stupid and trivial in some ways and yet I used to obsess about it every day. Clearly, I'm still recovering but the self-discovery continues. I can only hope, dear reader, that my rambling revelations are reveling in a way that isn't too repulsive.

This journey will continue later in the week with a look at the "Web 2.0 Suicide Machine" and what might inspire people to use it. Until next time, stay connected.