Facebook: slaying the privacy bogeyman

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg discombobulated many privacy crusaders with his comments in a recent interview with TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington. Zuckerberg has supposedly announced the “end of privacy,” according to one source; other Cassandras express similar worries: “the age of privacy is over,” “people don’t want privacy,” etc. These ostensible quotations have accuracy typical of the media, which is to say, little. Watch Zuckerberg’s interview to hear what he really said (or read a transcript of his remarks):

Like the current hysteria over Facebook’s so-called threat to privacy, teeth gnashing over information sharing on social networks has often bespoken a nonsensical understanding of “privacy.”

The best definition of privacy, which comports with how most people use the term, comes from Merriam-Webster: “freedom from unauthorized intrusion”. If Internet users enjoy sharing more personal details with more people than in the past, as Zuckerberg claims, that hardly portends the “end of privacy.” It might herald a rise of exhibitionism with a concomitant ascendance of voyeurism, but these do not entail involuntary revelation of secrets.

Tweeting one’s boredom waiting for a flight at the airport doesn’t force him to tell of his anticipation of joining the Mile High Club or of his arrest upon landing for public indecency. He can choose what to share or not, and with whom to share it.

That’s why even discreet introverts like me needn’t fear Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or other social networking tools. On my Facebook privacy settings, I’ve toggled almost all visibility settings to “only friends” and disallowed public search engines from indexing my profile page. I still let other Facebook users search for me, but I could forbid that if I chose. On Twitter, even though I opt not to shield my tweets from public view, I could if I wished. And on both Facebook and Twitter, I resist sharing sordid personal trivia.

Jar-Jar Binks fears his privacy has been violated on FacebookIndividual users have ultimate responsibility for protecting their information from eyes they don’t want seeing it, as I have done. Some privacy hawks complain the default privacy settings of sites like Facebook are too open. But prudence demands users ensure beforehand their intended audiences are the recipients of their digital detritus.

If people inadvertently overshare because they couldn’t bother to check their settings first, that demonstrates more an epidemic of laziness than a crisis in privacy. (Not knowing how to verify privacy settings indicates unwillingness to learn about an application before using it, which to me qualifies as laziness.) And, if people decide to reveal embarrassing situations and later regret doing so, the fault is their own. Facebook, Twitter, and their kin can’t make their denizens act wisely.

Casting such banalities as invasions of privacy trivializes the concept.

When governments around the world pry into our lives by any means necessary, so diffusing the meaning of privacy could damage the cause of maintaining it. How fiercely would the populace hold onto “privacy” if it consists of preventing Mr. Frat Boy from carelessly telling the world about his drunken vomit-fest on Facebook?

I agree with social networking cynics that we must defend privacy at all costs. Toward that end, let’s remember to what privacy genuinely refers: “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures” (to borrow from the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution).

Robust social networking such as on Facebook could help protect the essence of privacy. As Julian Sanchez of the Cato Institute notes, the most easily accessible information about people online usually takes the form of their own “[b]logs, Facebook or MySpace profiles, Twitter accounts, Last.fm pages, YouTube channels”. What we want the world to know about us, Sanchez says, is shoving aside potentially ugly or invasive chatter from others. So we can be our own public relations managers, wielding a potent arsenal to keep secure information we might not want everyone to know.

All this looking under the bed to slay the bogeyman of Facebook’s threat to privacy, however, distracts from how profoundly social networking facilitates human communication. Whereas, yes, this greater interconnectivity allows vapid effusions to travel at lightspeed onto our TweetDecks, it also lets friends and family who might be thousands of miles apart keep up with each other’s lives more easily than ever before. It provides distressed individuals an avenue to seek comfort they otherwise mightn’t know how to get. It simplifies the organization of aid to worthy causes, such as relief for victims of the earthquake in Haiti. It exposes the wrongdoing of authorities. Most famously, it has nurtured the Green Revolution that is agitating against Iran’s brutal theocracy.

I remember when people did not write blogs, upload YouTube videos, send tweets, or have Facebook profiles. Without such constant flow of ideas, stories, and news, the Internet felt more isolating and drab. Mark Zuckerberg and his peers are fulfilling the Internet’s promise as an “information superhighway,” which implies traffic zooming in both directions. I do not fear but embrace Zuckerberg’s world, and I look forward to seeing where it takes us next.

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Written by Jason Vines

I'm Jason Vines, a web developer at a research institution in Washington, DC. I graduated from George Washington University with a bachelor's degree in political science, with a minor in journalism. I enjoy philosophy and web scripting, as well as reading, writing, history, video games, travel, and photography.