SXSW: Privacy (and publicness)

At the privacy panel at SXSW. danah boyd says the issue is control. I always say that but she says it better. Siva Vaidhyanathan (fellow writer of books about Google) wants to beat down the assumption that just because we share a lot we don’t care about privacy. He also wants to beat down the notion that there’s a zero-sum game between privacy and publicity. Alice Marwick of NYU says – bless her – that “there is a value to publicness.” That is my rallying cry. Publicness is social. But publicness, she points out, is also valuable to companies. Judith Donath of MIT Media Lab says public space implies common control; private is under individual control.

Donath discusses the idea of companies making transparent what they know about us. Isn’t that what Google is starting to do by giving us the option to see our profiles, the basis for its targeting of us. I worked on a business once and wanted to expost our targeting data for ads so readers could correct us (the Amazon/TiVo problem of one action haunting you forever) and tell us what companies they didn’t want and what companies they did want. In aggregate, this data – likely honest data in pursuit of an interest – would be many, many times more valuable than the targeting done now. A brave media company would tell advertisers how many readers didn’t want their ads and why (anonymously, of course).

Lovely phrase from Donath: “the digital mirror.” We look in our digital mirror, don’t we, with our ego searches on Technorati and Google and Twitter. But we also need the ability to look in the digital mirrors others hold. And then we need the power to primp.

She also says that the public sphere we are creating leads to more tolerance. I agree; see the snippets below.

boyd and Vaidhyanathan agree that our data is currency but she says it is currency not just in an economic sense – many of us in this room, she observes, got jobs from revealing ourselves online – but also in a social sense: we trade our bits of data.

On celebrity, Marwick says that it is a one-to-many relationship. Celebrity is having followers. Aha, so that makes Twitter a machine t hat makes us all celebrities, no? Everybody’s famous to 15 followers.

Back to Siva’s opening point: Just because someone opens up to the public it doesn’t mean they don’t deserve privacy and control in some areas. That, I think, is also key to the level of discourse online, the transposition of an old norm – hey, you put yourself o

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Here are snippets from What Would Google Do on privacy and publicness:

When the photo service Flickr started, its husband-and-wife founders, Caterina Fake and Stewart Butterfield, made a fateful if almost accidental decision. As Fake puts it, they “defaulted to public.” That is, while other online photo services made the assumption that users would want to keep personal pictures private—stands to reason, no?—Flickr decided instead to make photos public unless told otherwise.

Amazing things happened. People commented on each other’s photos. Communities formed around them. They tagged their photos so they could be found in searches because they wanted their pictures to be seen. They contributed more photos because they were seen. And as I will explain later, their usage of photos helped interesting ones to bubble up, which was possible only because they were all public.

Fake calls this condition “publicness,” which is becoming a key attribute of society and life in the Google age. I believe publicness is also becoming a key attribute of successful business. We now live and do business in glass houses (and offices), and that’s not necessarily bad.

Publicness is about more than having a web site. It’s about taking actions in public so people can see what you do and react to it, make suggestions, and tell their friends. Living in public today is a matter of enlightened self-interest. You have to be public to be found. Every time you decide not to make something public, you create the risk of a customer not finding you or not trusting you because you’re keeping secrets. Publicness is also an ethic. The more public you are, the easier you can be found, the more opportunities you have.

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Another snippet:

Google is changing our societies, our lives, our relationships, our worldviews, probably even our brains in ways we can only begin to calculate.

Start with our relationships. I believe young people today—Generation Google—will have an evolving understanding and experience of friendship as the internet will not let them lose touch with the people in their lives. Google will keep them connected. Admit it: You’ve searched for old girlfriends and boyfriends on Google (and wondered whether they’ve Googled you). Your ability to find those old, familiar faces likely drops in inverse proportion to age: The older you are, the harder it is to find old friends online. I went to Google—purely as an academic and technical exercise, understand—and searched for old girlfriends. I found my college girlfriend, now a philosophy professor. I couldn’t find my high-school sweetheart as she had left no visible Google tracks. But she later found me because, with my blog, I had left as many tracks as a herd of buffalo in snow. We live on opposite coasts now but when I was in her city on business, we got together and filled each other in on the last—gulp—30-odd years. We never would have had that chance to catch up and come to account without Google. Thank you, Google.

That won’t be the experience of young people today. Thanks to our connection machine, they will stay linked, likely for the rest of their lives. With their blogs, MySpace pages, Flickr photos, YouTube videos, Seesmic conversations, Twitter feeds, and all the means for sharing their lives yet to be invented, they will leave lifelong Google tracks that will make it easier to find them. Alloy, a marketing firm, reported in 2007 that 96 percent of U.S. teens and tweens used social networks—they are essentially universal—and so even if one tie is severed, young people will still be linked to friends of friends via another, never more than a degree or two apart.

I believe this lasting connectedness can improve the nature of friendship and how we treat each other. It will no longer be easy to escape our pasts, to act like cads and run away. More threads will tie more of us together longer than in any time since the bygone days when we lived all our lives in small towns. Today, our circles of friends grow only larger. Does this abundance of friendship make each relationship shallower? I don’t think so. Friendship finds its natural water level—we know our capacity for relationships and stick closest to those we like best. The so-called Dunbar number says we are wired to pay attention to about 150 relationships. I think that could grow with relationships of various kinds that are easier to maintain online. But remember the key insight that made Facebook such a success: It brought real names and real relationships to the internet. It’s about good friends.

Won’t our embarrassments also live on? Our missteps, youthful mistakes, and indiscretions will be more public and permanent, haunting us for the rest of our lives because the world, thanks to Google, has a better memory. True. But here the doctrine of mutually assured humiliation enters to shield us. We will all have our causes to cringe. The tarnished flipside of the golden rule becomes: I’ll spare you your shame if you spare me mine. Or to put it more eloquently, I once again quote author David Weinberger, who said at a conference (according to the Twitter feed of blogger Lisa Williams, who was there): “An age of transparency must be an age of forgiveness.” Our new publicness may make us more empathetic and ultimately forgiving of each others’ and even of public figures’ faults and foibles. We see that already. Barack Obama said he inhaled and no one gasped. Who are we to throw stones when Google moves us all into glass towns? In Googley terms: Life is a beta.

But still, I hear, hasn’t life become too public? What has become of privacy? “Nothing you do ever goes away and nothing you do ever escapes notice,” Vint Cerf, one of the fathers of the internet and most recently a Google executive, told an audience in Seattle. Then he added—please note, with irony—“There isn’t any privacy, get over it.” He’s right. I say privacy is one of the most overused fear words of the age. Privacy is not the issue. Control is. We need control of our personal information, whether it is made public and to whom, and how it is used. That is our right, at least for matters outside the public sphere.

The ethics and expectations of privacy have changed radically in Generation G. People my age and older fret at all the information young people make public about themselves. I try to explain that this sharing of personal information is a social act. It forms the basis of the connections Google makes possible. When we reveal something of ourselves publicly, we have tagged ourselves in such a way that we can be searched and found under that description. As I said in the chapter on health, I now can be found in a search for my heart condition, afib. That is how others came to me and how we shared information. Publicness brings me personal benefits that outweigh the risks.

Publicness also brings us collective benefits, as should be made clear by now from the aggregated wisdom Google gathers and shares back with us thanks to our public actions: our searches, clicks, links, and creations. Publicness is a community asset. The crowd owns the wisdom of the crowd and to withhold information from that collective knowledge—a link, a restaurant rating, a bit of advice—may be a new definition of antisocial or at least selfish behavior.

For all these reasons and one more powerful than any of them—ego—we will continue to reveal more of ourselves online. We will want to speak and to be discovered. Our online shadows become our identities. To stand out from our crowd, we need distinct identities. I’ll bet we’ll soon see parents giving children unique names so they can stand alone in Google searches. Wired editor Chris Anderson linked to an early indication of the trend: Laura Wattenberg, author of The Baby Name Wizard, reported that in the 1950s, a quarter of all children got one of the top 10 baby names; more recently that has fallen to a tenth. I was about to predict that someday soon, parents would check to assure the .com domain for a name is available before giving the moniker to a baby. Then I searched on Google and, sure enough, the Associated Press reported in 2007 that it’s already happening: “In fact, before naming his child, Mark Pankow checked to make sure ‘’ hadn’t already been claimed. ‘One of the criteria was, if we liked the name, the domain had to be available,’ Pankow said.” At last check, young Bennett wasn’t blogging, but his digital destiny is set.

More than names, identity will be about accomplishments and creations, things you are known for that narrow your Google search. I am the blogger Jeff Jarvis who writes about Google and media, not Jeff Jarvis the jazz trumpeter, Jeff Jarvis who ran Segway tours in Thailand (drat—I think I’d like to be him), Jeff Jarvis who heads a mobile field service software provider (whatever that is), and certainly not Jeff Jarvis the high school athlete (sadly, I’m too old and too clumsy). I am the No. 1 Jeff Jarvis. In Google wars, it’s every
Jeff for himself.

This brings us to another argument against public identity: It turns us into egotistical exhibitionists. We share everything, down to the most intimate and mundane. Who cares what I had for breakfast? Why share it? London blogger Leisa Reichelt found that this “ambient intimacy”—reporting small signposts of life, sharing what we’re doing, who we’re with, when we get a new haircut or a new car—allows us to “keep in touch with people with a level of regularity and intimacy that you wouldn’t usually have access to, because time and space conspire to make it impossible.” Ambient intimacy is good for friendship. “It helps us get to know people who would otherwise be just acquaintances. It makes us feel closer to people we care for but in whose lives we’re not able to participate as closely as we’d like.” And on a practical level, Reichelt said, “It also saves a lot of time when you finally do get to catch up with these people in real life!”