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 Responses to RIP Privacy and Identity Synthesis on the Web

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *