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Public Parts: atomize & reform

I’ve been rewriting the introduction to Public Parts — both because it needs it and because of events in Egypt and elsewhere. This segment, from the end of the introduction, is related to the post below. I thought I’d share it with you as it adds some more thinking on the same topics:

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Technology is forcing us to question centuries-old assumptions about the roles of the individual and society: our rights, privileges, powers, responsibilities, concerns, and prospects. That describes nothing so much as the process of modernization. In ancient times, Richard Sennett says in The Fall of Public Man, “public experience was connected to the formation of social order”—that is, the end of anarchy. In recent centuries, being public “came to be connected with the formation of personality”—that is, with our individuality and freedom. Ancient and authoritarian regimes told people what they must think and do; modern societies enable and ennoble citizens to do what they want to do, alone and together. Publicness is a progression to greater freedom but that freedom is often used to collect into new societies.

Society splinters and splits and then reshapes in new forms. Think of us as atoms in molecules. Centuries ago, our molecules were villages and tribes; location defined us and often religion guided us. In Europe, Gutenberg empowered Luther to smash society apart into atoms again, until those elements reformed into new societies, defined by new religions and now nations. Come the industrial revolution—for which Gutenberg himself was the first faint but volatile spark—the atoms flew to bits again and reformed once more, now as cities, trades, and economies. We atomize. We reform into new molecules. We don’t evolve so much as we blow up in wrenching bursts of violence, breaking strong, old bonds and forcing us to feel disconnected until we can connect again. This is not a debate about whether we are meant to be alone or together, whether our natural state is independent or social, private or public. We are meant to be both; we just change the formula, given chance and necessity. We like to think that we finally find the right balance and discover our natural state. And then technologies come along and ruin our dear, old assumptions and order. That is what is happening today.

The net is everyone’s printing press. I don’t mean it’s a medium; I just said it’s not. I mean it’s our tool of disruption, the catalyst that breaks old bonds once again and sets us loose to explore our natures anew. This transformation takes trivial form: we no longer all watch the same, shared news with the same, one-size-fits-all viewpoint. R.I.P. Uncle Walter. Clearly, this transformation also takes earth-shattering form: revolutions, dead industries, economic upheaval. We atomize. We reform. We want to be apart—too far apart, some fear. See the book Bowling Alone, in which Robert Putnam worries that we are becoming disconnected from family, friends, neighbors, and society. But then we want to be together. That book inspired entrepreneur Scott Heiferman to found Meetup.com, a platform that lets groups organize meetings in person around whatever interests they have, from dogs to dance, sci-fi to society. Atomize. Reform. We can now find the publics we wish to join based not on the gross labels, generalizations, and borders drawn about us by others—red v. blue, black v. white, nation v. nation—but instead on our ideas, interests, and needs: cancer survivors, libertarians, Deadheads, vegetarians, single moms, geeks, hunters, birders, even privacy advocates.

Publicness is an emblem of epochal change. It is profoundly disruptive. Publicness threatens institutions whose power was invested in the control of information and audiences. That’s why we hear the incumbents protest this change and warn of its dangers. Publicness is a sign of our empowerment at their expense. Dictators and politicians, media moguls and marketers try to tell us what to think and say. But now, in a truly public society, they must listen to what we say. So if they are to survive and prosper, companies, governments, and institutions must learn to deal with us at eye-level, with respect for us as individuals and respect for the power we can now wield as groups—as publics. Many will not survive and will be replaced by entrepreneurs and insurgents, both good and bad.

The progression toward a more public society is apparent and inevitable; resistance is futile. But the form our new society will take is by no means predestined. We are at a critical moment with many choices. We who hold the tools of publicness hold keys to the future. We must decide how to use them. Rather than baying at the moon and cursing the tide, we would be wise to find opportunity and advantage, to decide the kind of future we want to build. . . . Now is the moment and we are the people to give shape to our next society. In each of our roles as individuals, parents, employees, employers, citizens, officials, and neighbors, each of us is deciding how private to be (safe, protective, closed, sometimes solitary, often anonymous) and how public (open, collaborative, collective, and vulnerable).

I remember watching the drama of Egypt’s revolution play out on Twitter. Silly little Twitter. It was supposed to be made for nothing more than sharing the narcissistic trivia of our lives as we each answered the simple question: What are you doing now? As if the world should care, right? During the Egyptian revolt, I tweeted how jarring the contrast could be between the very everyday updates of people I knew—meals, dates, travels, shows, complaints, cats—flowing next to the messages of courage, fear, exhilaration, and determination I saw from the brave people of Cairo’s Tahrir Square, strangers I was coming to know and respect by the minute.

@ghonim—Google executive Wael Ghonim, who was credited with helping spark this revolution using a Facebook page—had been held prisoner by Hosni Mubarak’s police; his followers and fans would believe he was free only when they saw him say so in a tweet. He used the tool to deliver news, inspiration, and support: “Pray for #Egypt. Very worried as it seems that government is planning a war crime tomorrow against people. We are all ready to die.” On the night 17 days into the 18-day revolution when the people of the square believed the dictator Mubarak would leave—but he did not—@ghonim had tweeted, “Heading to Tahrir” and “Revolution 2.0: Mission Accomplished.” The next morning, Mubarak was not gone. The work of the revolution not yet over, Ghonim told his followers and the media that he would not be speaking through the press but through his Facebook page, his tool of publicness. And then Mubarak did leave. “Welcome back, Egypt,” he tweeted. “They lied at us. Told us Egypt died 30 years ago, but millions of Egyptians decided to search and they found their country in 18 days.”

At every minute in this momentous story, it was evident how precarious the next minute would be, the one after that only more so. Mubarak might or might not leave sooner or later. The army could shift this way or that. Thugs with rocks could return to the square. Authorities could use the internet themselves to spread misinformation and find and arrest the protestors. Out of habit, I watched the news progress on TV, but most of the time, even Al Jazeera English had only a telephoto shot of the square from a safe distance with commentary that could do little more than repeat itself. TV could hear few voices from the square.

On Twitter, a virtuoso of the form, @acarvin—National Public Radio social-media strategist Andy Carvin—spent hours and days constantly curating the best he could find from the people who were on the ground. He passed on news and debunked rumors and asked the people who were there what was really happening. He quoted—retweeted, that is—people like @sandmonkey, a brave blogger who six years before began to use these tools to share his ideas and experiences in Egypt with the world. Early in my blogging days, I had learned much from him. After the protestors’ victory he blogged, “Tonight will be the first night where I go to bed and don’t have to worry about state security hunting me down, or about government goons sent to kidnap me; or about government sponsored hackers attacking my website. Tonight, for the first time ever, I feel free … and it is awesome!” Sandmonkey replaced his cartoon avatar on Twitter with a picture of the real him and published his name, Mahmoud Salem.

Even as you read this [the book is coming out in the fall of 2011], months after the revolution began, it is, of course, far too soon to know how this story will turn out. There is no script and not even a dramatis personae of leading actors. @ghonim, who brought many people to Facebook, Twitter, and the square, demurred as a leader, vowing on Twitter that he would return to his normal life at Google when this work was done. What kind of society Egypt can build and maintain post-Mubarak teeters on so many risks, needs, and warring interests, but also on so many new opportunities. Just as Egypt’s society of the future could go many ways, so could ours and other societies yet to emerge.

The new age has its doubters. Young curmudgeon Malcolm Gladwell says, “surely the least interesting fact about them is that some of the protestors may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another. Please. People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented.” Well, I have no doubt that the tools of publicness played a role in helping a true Egypt of the people rise from silence to be heard at last. These tools enabled them to share their information, their frustration, and their dreams. That is why Mubarak shut down the internet and mobile phones completely, because they were a threat—and the fact that any one man could do that must worry us all. But even Mubarak had to turn it back on, because the internet is that vital to life now. Yet in the end, Gladwell is at least right about this: the tools are only tools. The revolution is the people’s. As a blogger reminded us on Al Jazeera English, Twitter did not fight Mubarak’s police. Egyptians did. Facebook will not create the new society. But here’s where Gladwell’s wrong: This new society used Facebook to help shape itself.

“What kind of world would make the values of both publicness and privacy equally accessible to all?” asks Michael Warner. That is our challenge: to find a new balance between us as free individuals and as members of a public who freely join together to build better, more open, more generous, and more accountable companies, markets, communities, governments, schools, relationships, and lives. There is a need for privacy, its cautions, and its advocates, to be sure. But publicness also needs its advocate. That is this book.

The kids are all right

Yesterday, I held a session on privacy and publicness as part of a news literacy event held at Baruch’s journalism school, intending to exploit these young people by interviewing them — rather than lecturing them — for my book on publicness and privacy. I came away greatly heartened about the wisdom and savvy of the NYC teens I heard from there.

I started the day, though, depressed as GMA weekend anchor Ron Claiborne delivered a propagandistic defense of all things professional, closed, and corporate in journalism and an attack on this internet thing. “When was the last time you saw a correction on a blog?” he demanded. I muttered, “fuck me,” and then had to remind myself of the company I was in. So I muttered on Twitter that I’ve seen countless corrections on blogs since I last saw one on network news. Claiborne was telling the internet to get off these kids’ lawns. I got grumpy. My mood didn’t improve when nobody showed up for my first of two sessions. “Well,” I joked with fellow faculty, “they say kids today don’t care about privacy today. I guess this is the proof.”

But in my second session, the room filled with three or four dozen young people (and a few teachers) and I began interviewing them. Boy, was I impressed. Random notes….

No one in the room uses MySpace. They scrunch their collective noses at the name. Not so very long ago, MySpace was said to be the service for young people, particularly urban young people. Well, no more. Rupert’s Folly has fallen off a cliff. It’s clear this is why he’s giving it two quarters to climb back up or he’s setting it adrift.

Almost none of them uses Twitter. They say it lacks context; it is too fast and fleeting; and they don’t care about much of what they read there (which makes sense when your friends aren’t there). When I tweeted that, the NYTimes’ @zimbalist asked why. I think it’s because they’re not publishers (yet). They’re connecting. Whether this is a matter of the the age or their age, I have no way to know; we’ll have to wait to see the impact on Twitter when they grow older.

But I’ve seen this elsewhere. This summer, as my son and I drove up to Facebook’s headquarters to interview Mark Zuckerberg for the book, Jake said he thought Facebook had invented something entirely new in the Wall. Its inventor disagreed; Mark said people always have, in his word, signalled. But I side with Jake. On his Wall (when I’m permitted in) I see him and his friends holding conversations there, in the open, as if in the hall at school. They use the Wall as a place to communicate. I see the Wall — as I think others my age do — as a place to publish or broadcast; we instinctively see it as media. So Twitter fits our reflex; Facebook theirs. But I think the young people are making use of the internet that is truer to its nature: It is not a medium but is a connector.

All the students post photos to Facebook; many post videos there; a few had posted videos to YouTube — interesting that so few do, because some of them come from a school for the performing arts. One young woman says she was going to take down her account because her videos are dumb and pointless, in her view: just her talking. One young man had just put up some impressions and he enjoys the idea of having a public there. Will we see more of that; is it their ambition to make media and audiences? Again, time will tell. I’ll bet we will as they find their public voices.

Every student in the room uses Facebook. They confess to being on it for hours at a time — three or more a day. My son’s was in the first class able to use Facebook in high school four-plus years ago. I thought it might seep down to middle school. So far, not so much. These students say they started using it in high school. I’ll confess relief. I found it fascinating that a few of the students with younger siblings were quite protective of them and did not approve of a 9-year-old using Twitter.

To a young man and woman, the people in this room confirm what I’ve learned from danah boyd: that young people do care about their privacy; that they do protect it; but also that they have to learn this. As danah says — countering Murdoch, btw — young people are not “digital natives” who are born with TOS in their DNA.

These students are very aware that what they tell a few friends on Facebook could end up anywhere, seen also by people they do not know. They post with that fully in mind. Backing up what danah says, many of them seemed to have been burned once and taught the lesson. The biggest challenge to privacy, then, is not so much Facebook or the internet but blabby, gossipy friends. Ever thus.

They are also aware that their parents and other adults are watching. Even if your parents aren’t your “friends” someone else’s may see what you write on their Wall. So they’re careful. Nonetheless they decry classmates doing stupid things (though they also know that folks often exaggerate on Facebook). Like what? Like showing themselves drinking. What could come of this? They could get caught.

Or there’s the college admissions problem. For these kids — bright, active, and mostly college-bound — that’s an issue. I ask whether they think that college admissions officers — and later, employers — should not be allowed to look at their Facebook presences. Surprisingly, none of them seem to object as a matter of principle and right. To them, it seems to make sense to check someone out online.

Almost all these students have changed their privacy settings, restricting their Walls, photos, birthdays, or contact information — even though, again, they know that anything could be repeated. They seem very much in control and like that control. They have other means of control as well: I ask whether they speak in code that they understand and parents don’t; they all laughed and nodded.

Is there, as media would lead us to believe, a sudden explosion of bullying? No, they tell me, there’ve always been bullies; it’s probably just easier to see them now. A teacher complained that fights get bigger crowds because students tweet the location and a mob gathers. “It doesn’t go down like that,” one of her students tells her. “There’s no texting.” Crowds gather the way they always have.

These students are not slavish fans of Facebook. One student argues that Facebook dilutes friendship; he says he doesn’t use it to communicate with his close (real) friends. Another says she unfriends people with some regularity because in reality friendships do change. A few others say they did discover new friends through Facebook. They all expect to use Facebook to stay in touch after they graduate. The point, says one: “Different people have different reasons to be on Facebook.” Some use it to connect with others; some use it just for fun. Which are you? I ask him. A bit of both, he says.

At the end, I ask what I’d missed and one student wants to be sure that I knew about the benefits of using Facebook and the publicness it brings. Oh, yes, I do, I assure her.

The antisocial movie

There’s no “why” there. That’s the problem with The Social Network. It neither explains nor even ascribes motives to Mark Zuckerberg—no vision, no strategy, no goals.

The movie quickly admits that money doesn’t matter to Zuckerberg. So why did he build Facebook? The Social Network offers no answer, except perhaps that an outsider wanted in, but that doesn’t begin to explain what he has accomplished and why; that’s nothing but simplistic prime-time plotting. The script says nothing about him wanting to connect the world or bring communities elegant organization. It doesn’t care. For this is a movie about tactics, not strategy, about people doing hard things to each other. Elsewhere, that’s just called business.

The movie violates privacy, smears reputations, makes shit up—just what the internet is accused of doing, right? Oh, it’s entertaining, in a dark way, as much as watching the pillorying of witches used to be, I suppose. For The Social Network, geeks and entrepreneurs are as mysterious and frightening as witches. Its writer, Aaron Sorkin, admits as much in New York Magazine. “He says unapologetically that he knows almost nothing about the 2010 iteration of Facebook, adding that his interest in computer-aided communication goes only as far as emailing his friends.” Sorkin himself says, “I don’t want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling.” Making shit up.

New York’s Mark Harris knows, in an aside at least, what this movie is really about. “The Social Network can be seen as a well-aimed spitball thrown at new media by old media.” Except it’s not really old media that’s spitting but neonew media. Sorkin is a member of the Young Curmudgeons’ Guild, joining Gladwell, Carr, Anderson, Rowan, Morozov, and Lanier. Old media resists change. These guys want to deny the internet credit for it.

The Social Network understands obnoxious old-money (the cartoon-colored, Zuckerberg-suing Winklevoss twins), obnoxious new-money (Sean Parker, though David Kirkpatrick says in Vanity Fair that he is “both more complex and more interesting”), and the pretentious intellectual (a fantasy of Harvard’s then-President, Larry Summers). And it thinks it understands victims (Facebook cofounder and former Zuckerberg friend Eduardo Saverin). I met Saverin once, in a panel put on by an ad network, which Saverin patronized on Facebook’s behalf and which served just the kinds of tacky ads Zuckerberg didn’t want for his company because he knew the value of cool and he had a much bigger vision than Saverin had. That’s likely why Saverin had to go; whether The Social Network knows it or not, it makes that clear. It’s just business. And as for the Winklevii, they didn’t invent crap. Ideas, especially obvious ones, are worthless; every entrepreneur and geek knows that execution is everything. Zuckerberg’s fellow Harvard drop-out Bill Gates didn’t invent crap, either, but he did execute. That’s business.

The Social Network doesn’t understand entrepreneurs and geeks, or at least not the one here. So it turns him into an other. It makes him weird. It portrays Zuckerberg as—let’s be blunt—Aspergery: blinkless, humorless, heartless, incapable of being *cough* social or of having *cough* friends. I’ve met Zuckerberg four or five times, most lately interviewing him for Public Parts. I don’t know him. Maybe nobody does. But I can testify at least that he has charm. He does smile. He tells jokes. And he has a vision.

Zuckerberg understands the structure and motives of friendship even though The Social Network calls him friendless. In a flash during the deposition scenes that make up its narrative spine (perhaps because only lawyering could make coding look exciting), the movie gives us an anecdote—based on a true story, as it turns out—about the Harvard art class Zuckerberg didn’t attend in his sophomore year as he was inventing Facebook. Here is Zuckerberg telling the story in 2007: He posted to a web page the images of the art he should have studied, sent an email to his classmates offering a “study guide,” and watched as they distilled the essence of each piece. The punchline: Not only did Zuckerberg ace the final but the prof said the class as a whole did better than usual. I saw that as a perfect tale of social collaboration, a lesson in wikithink. The Social Network called it cheating. And right there lies the movie’s disconnect—not between Zuckerberg and friendship but between the movie and the new world it can’t comprehend but pretends to portray.

The Social Network is the anti-social movie. It distrusts and makes no effort to understand the phenomenon right in front of its nose. It disapproves—as media people, old and neonew, do—of rabblerous (or drunk or drugged-up or oversexed) masses doing what they do. Ah, but its fans will say, it’s really just a drama about a man. But that’s where it fails most. It can’t begin to explain this man because it doesn’t grok what he made—what he’s still making (“We don’t even know what it is yet,” Zuckerberg says in the movie, “It’s never finished”).

The Social Network is the anti-geek movie. It is the story that those who resist the change society is undergoing want to see. It says the internet is not a revolution but only the creation of a few odd, machine-men, the boys we didn’t like in college. The Social Network is the revenge on the revenge of the nerds.

I know my risk here. I’m putting myself again in the position of defending the internet, just as David Kirkpatrick is making himself Facebook’s apologist. Maybe we’re both hypnotized by the Zuckerberg charisma Sorkin cannot see. Maybe we’ve been hanging out with business people so long we cannot see the Greek tragedy in it. Maybe. Though if all you want is a tale of hard-nosed business leading to human drama among geeks, you could film the story of Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, or—coming soon to a theater near you—Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

In Zuckerberg and Facebook—and the internet—I see a far bigger and better story than the one Sorkin delivers. As research for Public Parts, I happen to be reading the wonderful book, The Gutenberg Revolution, by John Man, which digs through scant records to try to understand what drove the man who used technology to disrupt an old world and enable people to create a new one. Gutenberg was a technologist, secretive and controlling. He was a businessman (one of the early capitalists who created one of the early industries, really). He drove tough bargains. He was competitive. He was accused by the Dutch of stealing someone else‘s idea. Oh, and he apparently broke up badly with at least one woman, Man says. In the hand of a Sorkin scribe of the day, I imagine Gutenberg would only be a weirdo: We don’t trust what he’s doing to our world, we don’t understand it, so we don’t like him.

You’re going to see The Social Network. You should. It’s well-crafted. But as you watch, I urge you to look at what it says not just about Mark Zuckerberg but about us, us geeks. I look forward to the discussion.

: LATER: Aaron Sorkin’s worldview, 2007: “Everybody’s voice oughtn’t be equal.”

: AND: I’m amazed by the meme I see in comments here but especially in those at HuffingtonPost: It’s not a documentary, so it’s ok to make shit up. An odd defense. Sorkin et al don’t put a caveat up at the start of the film. They make a movie about a man named Mark Zuckerberg starting a service called Facebook. They didn’t film it at Schmarvard. I don’t buy that.

The real Facebook burglaries story

I did a little reporting to get the real story behind the reports of a Facebook burglary spree that supposedly used the service — right after its launch of Places — to find victims who were away on vacation. I emailed Nashua, NH detective Dan Archambault, who told me that only two of the cases involved Facebook and in each case, “one or two of the suspects were Facebook friends with the respective homeowners. They basically had access to the walls and could read that the families were away on vacation. The information was only available to friends and the Facebook Places feature was NOT a part of this. And finally my advice to Facebook users is carefully pick your friends and watch what you post.”

And my advice is don’t believe everything you read. So this was not a case of a criminal using Facebook to find any old random victim. The implication of the coverage is that we were all — all 500 million of us — at risk for being so foolish to make ourselves public on Facebook and make ourselves vulnerable to every criminal out there. No, it’s foolish to make the wrong friends. Always has been. Still is.

I also contacted Facebook, and a PR person there sent back suggestions for how to wisely use the service: “I would recommend creating friend lists to separate people you really trust from others. Then, use the publisher privacy control to
send status updates to appropriate groups (and only them). I actually think it may make sense to tell people you really trust that you are gone through Facebook just as you would in person. Then, they can watch your place for you, feed your cat, etc… As for everyone else, if you wouldn’t tell them in person you were leaving town, you probably shouldn’t use Facebook to tell them. As always, we also recommend people only accept friend requests from others they actually know.”

All sensible.

If only things were so simple for Google, where, according to Gawker, an engineer used his high-level access to the company’s data bases to stalk teenagers. Google fired him. But the damage is done. We spoke about the case on today’s This Week in Google and as Leo Laporte and Gina Trapani said, to keep systems running, someone will always have access to data. Of course, that someone should be trusted. But as this case reveals, you never know whom to trust. So the company must come up with systems to assure trust. Should there be teams that must operate together in failsafe mode to get access to data? You tell me what would work.

The bottom line for both companies is that trust is essential and cases such as these can ruin trust and eventually ruin companies if we cannot depend on them. In the first case, media blew up a story for effect. In the second case, a dangerous vulnerability is revealed.

: AND: Being a journalism professor, I suppose I should point out the journalistic lesson here about reporting.

When this story first came out, it was marked by sloppy reporting that was only repeated and diluted. I read a number of the reports and backed up the line to the Nashua paper trying to find answers to basic questions. Nothing.

For anyone who knows the slightest thing about Facebook — that is, any reporter who uses it — the reporting raised obvious questions. So I contacted Facebook, who gave me the email of the detective, and I asked him: How did the accused use Facebook? In how many cases? Were they friends — that is, connected on Facebook — with any of the victims? Facebook tells me that its Places feature was not involved; true? Finally, what advice do you have for people using Facebook? Plus a few, more-detailed questions about the specifics of how these victims used Facebook.

The detective said this is an ongoing investigation, so he was limited in what he could tell me. But, as you can see, he answered the essential and obvious questions reporters and editors should have asked before. And if they didn’t have answers, they should have said so. I say lately that the key skill of journalists is going to be less saying what we know than saying what we don’t know. That is the essential skill in process journalism.

But all along the chain, nobody wanted to ruin a good story: USE FACEBOOK AND YOU’LL BE ROBBED! Much more fun, isn’t it? Reporting takes all the fun out of it.

It’s still about friends

Three examples of back-handed positive coverage for Facebook:

* bNet praises the anticipated Facebook Stories campaign about the service’s 500 million friends:

Stories of communities using Facebook to come together to help a family in need; stories of finding a long-lost love on Facebook; of finally being able to easily share photos with grandpa, and so on. It will be cheesy. And it will work. Facebook will always have its detractors, but this effort will reinforce the reasons why those 500 million people got on Facebook in the first place — to connect with their fellow humans in times of happiness, sadness and hilarity. (Oh, and because people they know in the real world pressured them into it.)

This campaign is hardly genius. In fact, Facebook execs seem a little slow on the uptake in finally sharing individual users stories now — the social net has been collecting them for years. As Facebook marketing honcho Randi Zuckerberg (yes, sister of that other Zuckerberg), told AllThingsD on Friday: “In the past, it’s been all about the numbers and milestones, and we realized we had never taken the opportunity to celebrate users.” Well, duh.

“Facebook Stories” may finally show Facebook that the best way to combat constant assaults from the privacy police and regulators is with stories of Facebook-inspired engagements, how it helped raise funds for causes important to some parts of its community, and, of course, with pictures of the new puppy shared amongst far-flung family members, replacing anger with “Awwwwww.”

The writer, Catharine Taylor, just can’t resist the snark. Why? Is that the new cool: diminishing rather than understanding the motives of 500 million people? Complain about Facebook’s execution at will, but there’s a phenomenon to be understood here, not dismissed.

* MediaPost reports that those suing Facebook over its privacy changes are going to have a problem: proving damage.

The main hurdle that plaintiffs in privacy lawsuits encounter centers on the difficulty of proving damages. Simply revealing information about another isn’t seen as causing injury — at least not the kind of injury that courts compensate people for.

Facebook now is arguing that a potential class-action lawsuit against it for having changed its privacy settings should be dismissed precisely because the members who are suing haven’t alleged any tangible injuries. “Plaintiffs fail to make a single factual allegation that specifies what information, exactly, Facebook has allegedly improperly disclosed or that Facebook publicly disclosed information that any Plaintiff intended to remain private,” Facebook argues in papers filed last week in federal district court in San Jose, Calif. “Instead, the complaint relies exclusively on vague, generalized allegations that say nothing specific about the named plaintiffs or how they have been harmed by Facebook.”

Right. I’m looking at that same issue in a broader sense in my book on publicness, wondering what the real damage is in privacy matters. Apart from identity theft and stalking — crimes in their own right — it’s sometimes hard to say what the damage is other than to spark fears. But fears aren’t damages.

MediaPost’s writer, Wendy Davis, also reports something positive for Facebook but then she, too, can’t resist the slap: “Facebook reportedly is ready to announce that it now has 500 million members. But if those members don’t repeatedly return to the site, their value to Facebook is limited. And with new social networking options in the works, Facebook could decide it’s in the company’s interest to rethink its approach to privacy.” That’s one of those on-the-other-hand remarks reporters make to inject faux balance: ‘Well, I’ve just told you how 500 million people use this service and the people who are complaining apparently don’t have a legal leg to stand on but I’m still going to say that they should change.’

* And then Forbes points to this video by Casey Neistat in which he says he loves Facebook and endeavors to explain it to the poor souls who can’t figure it out but at the end says using Facebook comes at the utter destruction of one’s privacy … though the video doesn’t back that up.

A Movie for Anyone On FaceBook from Casey Neistat on Vimeo.

Complaining about Facebook has become so hip it’s square. It’s knee-jerk, obvious, repetitive. Let’s move the conversation along. Facebook represents — no, it serves — changes in society and we journalists would be wiser trying to investigate the roots behind it than trying to root against it. Yes, Facebook has been clumsy about its changes lately. Stipulated. But 500 million people can’t all be wrong. Can they?

If Facebook were smart…

If Facebook were smart and open and meant what it said about the benefits of publicness and transparency that it now expects of the rest of us, then:

* Today’s company all-hands meeting about privacy would be public.

* It would find the Apple-elegant way to express its privacy policy rather than its current Talmudic tangle, something like: “Everything you put into Facebook is shared with your friends but in each case you may limit who sees it or choose to share it with the public. That is always your choice.”

* It would find the Apple-elegant way for us to execute that choice: let me make it every time I do something.

* It would find easy ways to show us how the world sees us through Facebook (and help us change that).

* It would not change its privacy settings and policies constantly. Set it. Explain it. Stick with it.

* It would not attempt to hoover up and share my implicit activity on the web. It should share only that which I explicitly choose to share. Execs should recognize that that’s what set users off; that was the line too far, the straw too many.

* It would recognize how much their defaults matter because, even if their privacy policies and functionality were elegant, they know most of us wouldn’t bother — and many of their users are young and not necessarily savvy about how their information can be used in the future. They would see their defaults as a responsibility.

* It would define evil. I said that on the latest This Week in Google: Google, by enabling its employees to ask whether it is evil, defines evil every day and that’s only for the good of its business: If it oversteps a line, if it does evil, it will lose trust and lose business. Facebook must make the similar calculation. It should define that line openly and let us and their employees challenge it constantly.

* It would use today’s meeting as an opportunity for soul-searching, enabling employees and unhappy (would-be) former users to criticize and thus help Facebook find its way.

* It would open-source and federate and put in users’ control any data and functionality about their identity online. That is, it should use open-source standards. It should allow me to extract and host my own identity and data. It should enable other companies to build atop this, with my consent.

* Facebook should decide whether it is in the relationship or the identity business and should learn that trying to be in both put it in conflict with itself and us. It was and likely needs to stay in the relationship business and that is precisely why it can’t become the host and publisher of our public identities.

* As I suggested here, it should study 16th century history about the origins of the public and private and understand that it is playing with bigger, more powerful and profound forces than even it knows. I just wrote in my next book that we are undergoing a similar shift in how society organizes itself with similar tools. Mark Zuckerberg says that he is enabling big change in society. I say examine that belief.

Facebook is smart. That’s why I remain surprised that it is blundering so. When Peter Rojas killed his Facebook identity (as Leo Laporte did last night on TWiG), he said in a Twitter conversation we had that Facebook may be blinded to its problems by its meteoric growth; it can’t see people leaving for all the people joining. I think he has a point. Any and every company would be wise to hear from unhappy and former customers, no matter how many new customers they have.

And they should do it in public.

Confusing *a* public with *the* public

I think Facebook’s problem lately with its disliked like button (and Google’s problem with the start of Buzz) is that they confuse the notion of the public sphere—that is, all of us—with the idea of making a public—that is, the small societies we create on Facebook or join on Twitter. Private v. public is not a binary decision; there is a vast middle inbetween that is about the control of our own publics. Allow me to explain….

Flickr: taberandrew

I’ve been trying to understand the vitriol I’ve seen in some quarters about Facebook’s latest moves—because I don’t fully get it. Oh, I understand the confusion Facebook’s privacy changes and settings cause—as Business Insider said, “Online privacy is the new programming a VCR.” Read EFF’s disquieting timeline of the mutation of Facebook’s privacy policy and look at this brilliant visualization of how Facebook has made the private public. I understand the problem.

But why is the reaction to Facebook’s latest move—the like button—so swift and so fierce, so last-straw-on-the-camel’s-back to some? Gizmodo dyspeptically listed 10 reasons to quit Facebook. Gizmodo and Engadget founding editor Peter Rojas quit Facebook, as did Google’s Matt Cutts, and my This Week in Google boss Leo Laporte disabled his account for awhile. Three heavier heavyweights in our world it’s hard to find and when they lose trust—which is what happened—that’s a big deal, bigger than Facebook seems to realize.

Clearly, there’s something more going on here, something fundamental. Facebook overstepped a line and so I want to try to find that line. I think it may lay here:

Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg seem to assume that once something is public, it’s public. They confused sharing with publishing. They conflate the public sphere with the making of a public. That is, when I blog something, I am publishing it to the world for anyone and everyone to see: the more the better, is the assumption. But when I put something on Facebook my assumption had been that I was sharing it just with the public I created and control there. That public is private. Therein lies the confusion. Making that public public is what disturbs people. It robs them of their sense of control—and their actual control—of what they were sharing and with whom (no matter how many preferences we can set). On top of that, collecting our actions elsewhere on the net—our browsing and our likes—and making that public, too, through Facebook, disturbed people even more. Where does it end?

Facebook has been playing this tension since its early days. Remember the hubbub over News Feed: When Facebook aggregated our updates into feeds, it freaked users, even though Mark Zuckerberg pointed out that all these updates were already visible to us among our friends on their pages. Zuckerberg’s vision was right in the end; the News Feed is critical to Facebook’s utility, value, and growth and it presaged the appeal of Twitter. But even in the public Twitter, even though we are publishing to the world, we still have a measure of control; we decide whom to follow—that is, which publics to join.

So let me repeat: In Facebook, we get to create our publics. In Twitter, we decide which publics to join. But neither is the public sphere; neither entails publishing to everyone. Yet Facebook is pushing us more and more to publish to everyone and when it does, we lose control of our publics. That, I think, is the line it crossed.

The irony in all this is that I think Facebook has been profoundly redefining our notion of a public in ways that—judging by its actions—even it does not fully grasp. I am listening to a fascinating radio series (and podcast) on the CBC based on the work of a project called Making Publics. This group of academics began five years ago with Jürgen Habermas’ belief that the public sphere—the counterweight to the state as heard through public discussion and opinion—did not emerge until the 19th century. They also agreed that prior to the Renaissance and the 16th century, “public” referred to people with public standing in the social hierarchy—the elite—rather than to all of us. But then the Making Public team saw that during the 16th and 17th centuries, the printing press, theater, art—that is, the means to publish and present—as well as markets enabled people to create and join their own publics.

I am struck with how similar that moment of change is to the internet’s upheaval today. Gutenberg’s press—and the arts of painting and theatre and the skill of map-making—enabled a still-small elite to create publics; indeed, their hold on the public stayed in place until only a decade ago. Today, the web enables all of us to publish and thus to make publics and also to join new publics (and destroy the old, elite definition and control of the public). The three key inventions of the early-modern era that enabled this change were the compass, gunpowder, and the press. Our equivalents are—what?—the net, the web, and blogs. Berners-Lee is our Gutenberg. Or is it Ev?

Facebook refined the gross sense of publicness that blogs put in the hands of us all: everyone publishing to everyone. Its social network gave us the tools to create and join our own publics and gain control over what we make public and who can join it. That was a powerful gift that shifted the basis of interaction online from flaming to friendship, built on real identity and real relationships. Facebook helped civilize the internet. Yet I don’t think Facebook understands the value of that control because it continues to try to make us entirely public.

See once more Matt McKeon’s visualization of Facebook’s public evolution. Hear, too, Zuckerberg’s Law: “I would expect that next year, people will share twice as much information as they share this year, and next year, they will be sharing twice as much as they did the year before.”

People accuse Zuckerberg of killing privacy and of wanting it dead. I think that’s likely unfair. I think instead he does see a profound cultural shift, one that existed before him but one that he took advantage of and then served and refined: We connect by sharing. In his view, I’ll bet, he’s not killing privacy; we are. He’s fine with that. And to an extent, so am I, as I argue the value of publicness. But both of us miss this subtle but profound distinction between the public and a public at our peril. That’s the lesson I’m trying to learn here as I start to write a book about publicness (more on that later).

I will argue that we face choices today about keeping something private or sharing it with our public or with the public at large and that we need to see the benefits of sharing—the benefits of publicness—as we make that calculation. I will argue that if we default to private, we risk losing the value of the connections we can make today. I will argue that we need institutions—companies and governments—to default to public. And I will argue that the more we live in public, the more we share, the more we create collective wisdom and value. I will defend publicness. But I will also defend privacy—that is, control over this decision.

I would not be surprised to hear that Zuckerberg shares this gospel. I think he’s sincere when he says he sees Facebook as a tool to enable us all to change our world through connections. I think that’s why he’s pushing us to be public; it’s more than just a cynical commercial motive. Yet I think he gets in trouble when he doesn’t see these distinctions, which I’m trying to discern in our new definitions of private, public, publics, and identity. And so he risks blowing it. But I still think it’s not too late.

I don’t believe Facebook has gone evil—or gone rogue, as Wired insists. The problem for Facebook is more likely that it never defined evil—as in “don’t be evil.” Google is aware of its line, which is about losing value if it loses trust. Facebook seems almost unaware of its line and perhaps that’s because its is harder to find. I suggest they study 16th century history and the origins of the public as they reinvent the public.

* * *

Flickr: Matthew Burpee

All this is related to the question of identity online—related but different. What I publish can add up to my identity and with different publics I have different identities. So identity is a key component of our notions of publicness.

The admirable Diaspora Project is trying to build an open and distributed version of Facebook to let us publish, aggregate, and control our own stuff to make up our own identities. That’s great, but I think that, too, conflates the ideas of a public and the public; it does what Zuckerberg is doing by having us publish everything to all, except it gives us ownership of that. I’m not criticizing the effort at all; I think it’s great. I’m just saying that this isn’t a substitute for Facebook; it’s something different, something more public.

Having captured what it thinks is our identities online, Facebook now wants to be the enabler and controller of our identities. But because we don’t want our stuff on Facebook to be completely public, Facebook cannot be that hub of public identity. The Diaspora Project can. But I wonder whether the Diaspora Project—like ClaimID and OpenID—can succeed because I wonder what our motivation is to keep our identities updated. I have a reason to update Facebook for my friends there or this blog for you all or LinkedIn for my professional contacts or Twitter for my instant ego gratification. But I haven’t had a reason to keep ClaimID (on this page) up to date. That’s the trap the Diaspora Project needs to avoid.

And this is where I think that Leo Laporte and Gina Trapani collaboratively stumbled on a big idea related to identity on the latest This Week in Google. Gina talked about our motive to update Facebook and Leo said the equivalent for identity would come if Google put our profile pages on the top of the search results for our names. If the first result for Leo Laporte in search were Leo Laporte’s profile page, he’d be motivated to keep it up to date, to make it the canonical Leo page. Brilliant, I think. Google, are you listening? Facebook?

* * *

Other notes…. The problem with the launch of Google’s Buzz was related but not so subtle: By mixing our email with its Twitteresque platform, Buzz, Google mixed our private and public. It not only mixed our email connections with the idea of publishing to the world, it also robbed us of the chance to create and control our own publics. In another of its Snuffaluffagus moments, I imagine that Google thought it was doing us a favor by making a public for us: our readymade society. But that was precisely the wrong move, for we want to make and join publics on our own. That is the essence of controlling our worlds.

Facebook’s identity opportunity – or somebody’s

Facebook has the chance to turn a problem — negative publicity about its latest privacy shifts and confusion about how to control them — into a business opportunity: It could become the protector of your identity instead of a threat to it. That’s a service we need.

Imagine if Facebook started a new and independent arm to take your side in any question about identity and privacy on Facebook — the ID equivalent of Google’s Data Liberation Front. This group’s job would be to simplify all the obfuscation that is confusing every Facebook user I know about how and where their data will be used and shared: create simple tools with simple rules and explanations and execute our wishes for us. That alone would help Facebook’s relationship with us today. If Facebook wants us to trust our identities to Facebook, then it better take that mission seriously.

Now imagine that Facebook does such a good job of that — turning its rumbling PR problem into a new asset — that we ask it to bring this service elsewhere on the web, helping us determine and decide what’s shared about me on the internet: what I share about me, what others share about me, what others can see of me, and how I can manage that.

I see a new identity dashboard over the web that lets me see how I’m seen and then adjust and publish as I choose — not just shutting down (which is what happens when people get overwhelmed with privacy control issues — even Leo Laporte is doing that) but also deciding what we want to make public (because I argue there is value in publicness).

Mind you, I am not publishing all the things that add up to me through Facebook, nor will I ever. I publish my identity every day all over the web; that is what Facebook should help me manage. Identity is distributed. So, as I argued here, I should control this on my own but I need help managing it. Current tools — ClaimID and such — are as difficult to use as Facebook’s privacy control and are ineffective.

There’s also a service waiting to happen to verify identity. Twitter does that for celebs; why not for all of us?

Facebook could do all this. Because it already has the tightest link to our identities online, it should do this. I’d argue it should do this to turn its relationship with us and our identities on its axis: rather than being accused of exploiting our identities, it should regain our trust — and value — by becoming our best protector, our ID agent.

Google could also do that. This might be a way for it to leapfrog Facebook in the identity and social front: help us organize not the world’s information but our information. The Google profile page becomes not something that lives on Google but something Google enables us to manage.

Even the Post Office could do this. Way back when, it proposed becoming an identity verification service. I know from my little bit of work with folks in the area that the USPS is certainly looking for new ways to bring value (read: new reasons to exist).

Startups could do this. As I tell my entrepreneurial students, whenever you see a problem, look for the opportunity in it. In all the yammering and schwitzing about Facebook and privacy and identity, it’s easy to see a big need and opportunity. Facebook should see it; others can, too.