RIP Privacy and Identity Synthesis on the Web

“Americans care about privacy mainly in the abstract.” – Jonathan Franzen

At a lunch the other week a successful entrepreneur who runs a large social network in Latin America said that he predicts internet users will:

(a) soon unpleasantly discover that they’re publishing more personal info on the web than they’re aware of, and therefore
(b) want more refined privacy features,
(c) want additional social network profiles each with varying levels of publicness and professionalism.

I have the opposite intuitions about (a) and (c). First (a). I agree that many users do not understand how their personal information is tracked and displayed. But I do not think the majority mainstream users of any age care and I think no young people care. Young people will soon replace old people.

It is important to pay attention to who expresses outrage at privacy scandals on popular web sites. When Facebook announced its new privacy settings in December the usual suspects (EFF and other Silicon Valley geeks) issued condemnations.

Did any mainstream user under age 30 give a shit?

Young people care the least about privacy. Or, if we’re not proactively anti-privacy, we have at least stopped clutching to the illusion that real privacy is still possible:

Younger people… are the only ones for whom it seems to have sunk in that the idea of a truly private life is already an illusion. Every street in New York has a surveillance camera. Each time you swipe your debit card at Duane Reade or use your MetroCard, that transaction is tracked. Your employer owns your e-mails. The NSA owns your phone calls. Your life is being lived in public whether you choose to acknowledge it or not.

All this notwithstanding being told countless times to reign in transparency and cover your private life…or else. Every college senior gets the “be afraid of Facebook, be very afraid” talk from career advisors who trot out examples of drunk photos costing students their jobs. This is overblown. For one, a would-be employer is seeking authenticity and honesty. If they’re so stupid as to expect not a single somewhat embarrassing photo from years 12 – 21, you probably wouldn’t want to work with them. In fact, a raw Facebook profile might just be the breath of fresh air that the hiring person is looking for after reviewing a hundred whitewashed uber-polished resumes.

Also, don’t forget about mutually assured embarrassment: if everyone has few missteps here and there are documented on the web, it’s hard to hold any one person’s gaffes against them.

In response to (c) above, I do not think the majority of users want to maintain different profiles. The web is accelerating the collapse of multiple identities. It is too much work to project different identities on the web, and it’s too easy to spot contradictions. Imagine the embarrassment if on your professional web page you list your favorite music as Chopin and Mozart and on your personal supposedly private blog you rave about Jay-Z and Eminem.

So a most-natural-version-of-yourself synthesis emerges from all your various masks (work mask, family mask, messing-around-with-friends mask, etc). I’m sure people will continue to post various personal information on various web sites, but the substantive content and style will not vary much. Facebook and LinkedIn will consolidate its worldwide dominance of personal and professional profiles, respectively, but even there I predict the differences between the profiles will shrink not grow.

Bottom Line: Young people continue not to care about privacy out the gate. More and more older people view the loss of privacy in a cost-benefit framework and support increased transparency. And “identity synthesis” will drive internet users to require fewer formal online profiles and broader general consistency in how they are portraying themselves on the web.

14 comments on “RIP Privacy and Identity Synthesis on the Web
  • The casualty across the web is not privacy as much as honesty. Smart people today *leak* an online persona they want the world to know – minus the dull stuff, plus the cool factor.

    Now it’s for the tracker to break his head to seize the bloke up:-)

    Given the info overload, the load of misinformation is so much that the tracking agencies will be easily misled or even veer off the track and ultimately lose sense of the purpose of their investigation. Now that’s privacy enough!!!

  • I second your idea that ‘identity synthesis’ is going to be a growing trend in ’10 and beyond. For a while, we were all stretching ourselves thin and trying out new services because it was fun. Now though, we’re all getting tired of the game, and it seems like people just want to find a few channels that work (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn) and focus their energies there.

    TweetDeck seems to have the right idea. They treat the different channels as just different sources of the same information, and group them all together into easily manageable and digestible columns. Example: Photos from Facebook and photos from Twitter are displayed in a nearly identical way, and the tool (meaning TweetDeck) allows you to just focus on the people and what they’re doing, rather than worry about what’s getting posted where and who’s going to see it.

  • Ben, I second your notion. And I suspect that Franzen is correct. Surprise. I think it’s nearly as true for old people. At 75 I suspect that I fit in the category of old people. (Your “ageism” is showing!)

    There’s plenty of research suggesting that the older you get, the fewer priorities you have, but the more you hold those few more tightly. Worrying about how much someone knows about you because of your web interactions is a non-starter. The downside of transparency seems to disappear. My aged friends are well-aware of how Amazon, Bestbuy, etc., track their purchasing,and assume there is other stuff going on. So??

    All the privacy stuff becomes irrelevant shit.

  • As a volunteer working with college students and young professionals, I occasionally see things that really shouldn’t get posted to Facebook and Twitter. I realize there’s often little to no filter, but that’s a poor excuse. People post at their own risk, and any NSFW content shows they lack judgment.

    I’m on the cusp of the share-everything generation — I err on the side of sharing selectively, not indiscriminately. We can’t blame employers for judging people who choose to post questionable things online (Facebook’s dreadful “opt-out” photo tagging policy aside).

    For better or for worse, online posts have no expectation of privacy. When it’s a public forum, you’re responsible for the consequences of what you choose to say.

  • “For one, a would-be employer is seeking authenticity and honesty.”

    “a raw Facebook profile might just be the breath of fresh air that the hiring person is looking for after reviewing a hundred whitewashed uber-polished resumes.”

    Although I agree with much of what you say as long-term trends, I think your travel-the-world, hang with leaders, entrepreneurs, and other interesting people life/work-style does not lend itself to understanding how a typical middle manager in government or a large corporation thinks. And those are the people who do most of the hiring. Further, companies start to behave that way at a much smaller size than you might think… as soon as they have their first HR lawsuit, everything changes.

  • Interesting counterpoint from Dana Boyd, echoing and expanding some of the points above:

    The privileged folks don’t have to worry so much about people who hold power over them observing them online. That’s the very definition of privilege. But most everyone else does. And forcing people into the public eye doesn’t dismantle the structures of privilege, the structures of power. What pisses me off is that it reinforces them. The privileged get more privileged, gaining from being exposed. And those struggling to keep their lives together are forced to create walls that are constantly torn down around them. The teacher, the abused woman, the poor kid living in the ghetto and trying to get out. How do we take them into consideration when we build systems that expose people?

  • Why does Augmented ID show the horns of Moloch when the guy points his phone at Zuckerberg?

    Zuckerberg’s explanation of Facebook’s reasons for the new privacy controls is not believable.

    But they’re a sound business decision regardless of whether or not Facebook really is only reflecting the changes that society is undergoing.

    Maybe the generational shift will involve “real neurological changes” as Clay Shirky says it might.

    But if the Creolization of media means that all the young people who replace the old people will speak in that monstrous Zuckerbergian uptalk (a rising inflection at the end of a sentence, as if the speaker were asking a question), please kill me now.

    I can’t live in such a world.

  • Because of the growth of identity synthesis, I believe more people will choose work they enjoy, instead of work that pays well. It’s hard to fuse your professional and personal lives if you dislike the former. In a social media world, those without an authentic persona are at a disadvantage, forcing people to find fulfilling work to be even moderately successful.

  • I asked Seth what he thought about your post, and here’s a redux of what he said:

    “I think it’s fine that social norms are changing, and that younger people are choosing to share more of themselves on the web. But there is a minority of people who either want or need to keep something private, and their rights are not being respected. For example, you might be gay but not want your parents to know, or you could be a member of a support group. If you’re an alcoholic/drug addict/abused kid etc. going through a difficult emotional period, you might seek help online through social networks, but not want others to know for fear of judgment or harassment. Another example is stalkers. Would you want your stalker to see your Twitter feeds or status updates? A lot of younger people may not think about this now because they haven’t had as many experiences and don’t have many secrets, but it’s possible that it will matter to them in the future. It’s true that people like these are only a minority of Web users, but I don’t think it’s right for technology to betray them.”

    On the whole, I’d agree with his argument. It’s fine for Google Buzz or FB to change their privacy settings, but they need to do a better job of notifying their users instead of making everything public on the fly. Personally, there’s a certain person whom I would never want to see my Facebook profile (you know who I’m talking about). I wouldn’t put it past him to try and find my house, and that’s why no one has ever seen where I live and why I never give out my address online. I’d ordinarily share more information, but I hold back because I don’t trust FB and know he might see it. It’s a mild inconvenience.

  • Oh, and another example might be government dissidents (i.e. in China). Those people need to seek out help online and REALLY don’t want certain other people to know what they’re thinking.

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