Privileged straight white male technology executives are dead wrong (again)

Social media researcher Danah Boyd says privacy is not dead, no matter what Eric Schmidt or Mark Zuckerberg might say


It's always nice when smart people agree with you, even if they don't know it. So as I was typing my initial screed for this blog -- "Social media and privacy are not incompatible (it just seems that way)" -- Danah Boyd was saying pretty much the same thing to an audience at South by Southwest.

Boyd is an ethnographer who works for Microsoft Research (the nice part of Microsoft) who's been documenting how young people interact online for more than a decade. A fellow Berkeley grad (Go Bears), Boyd has been studying social networks since before most people knew what they where. She knows her stuff.

Here's the nut graph:

"No matter how many times a privileged straight white male technology executive pronounces the death of privacy, Privacy Is Not Dead. People of all ages care deeply about privacy. And they care just as much about privacy online as they do offline. But what privacy means may not be what you think.... Fundamentally, privacy is about having control over how information flows. ...When they feel as though control has been taken away from them or when they lack the control they need to do the right thing, they scream privacy foul."

Right on, sister. In this particular instance, the privileged straight white male technology executive (PSWMTE) she's using as a whipping boy is Google's Eric Schmidt, and the whip she's using is Google Buzz.

I've written about Google Buzz myself in other venues, and I don't think Google was being evil here. I think they were being immensely stupid -- in a social sense, not a technological one. The Google geeks assumed people would naturally gravitate to Buzz and immediately want to share their information, because that's what everyone at Google would do.

Of course, the tight link to Gmail and making everyone's favorite contacts publicly accessible on buzz was also much to Google's benefit -- the easier something is to set up, the fewer restrictions on information being shared, the faster your service will grow.

So that assumption also served Google's purposes. At least it did, until they got bitch-slapped by the blogosphere. Per Boyd:

"Another issue is that Google foolishly told users what they wanted rather than asking them. As technologists, it's easy to assume that optimizing a situation is always best. Yet, this tends to break necessary social rituals that help acquaint people with a particular social setting. We don't go through the niceties of "Hi, How are you?" because it's optimal for communication; we do it because to do otherwise is rude. In digital worlds, people need to be eased into a situation, to understand how to make sense of the setting."

Google has apologized -- and tweaked the Buzz service about 16,000 times since it first debuted -- to assuage people's concerns, but the damage has been done. For a company a lot of people were already pretty wary of, that was another huge red flag.

Boyd's example number two: Facebook and its arbitrary policy changes last December that made everyone's information a lot more public by default. (I'll be writing more about that as this blog moves forward). Again, it's a case of PSWMTEs (Mark Zuckerberg, please report to a white iPhone) making assumptions about its users that mostly benefit Facebook. So far, that's earned Facebook a class action suit and some extra special attention from the FTC.

Boyd's larger point, which she makes far more eloquently than I, is that just because someone shares their updates with the world on Facebook or Twitter doesn't mean they've given up their personal privacy -- despite what all those PSWMTEs would like you to believe.

"What's at stake here is often not about whether or not something is public or private, but how public or private it is. People are not used to having the paparazzi trail after them every time they leave their house. Yet, when we argue that there's nothing wrong with making something that happens in public more public, we are basically arguing that we have the right to sick the paparazzi on everyone, to turn anyone into a public figure."

(She also had some things to say about ChatRoulette, which I'll get to at a later date, I promise.)

Author Dan Tynan has been writing about Internet privacy for the last 3,247 years. During his spare time he is part of the dynamic duo behind eSarcasm, the not-yet-award-winning geek humor site. Follow him on Twitter: @Tynan_on_tech.

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