Social is for sharing, not hiding

I fear we are on the verge of fetishizing privacy. Well, we’re not — but our media and government are.

Media’s assumptions

Yesterday I got a call from a journalist about Google+ and its Circles. He was not at all hostile to Google, Facebook, or social, but even so, implicit in his questions was a presumption that privacy is our highest priority in social services.

Think about that for half a minute and the absurdity of it becomes apparent. We don’t come to social services to hide secrets; that would be idiotic. We come to share.

The journalist said that people must be afraid of being public. Think about that for the rest of a minute: Media and government have held a monopoly on publicness as they have owned the megaphone and soapbox. Now the internet gives the rest of us the ability to be public and these long-public people think we are scared of what the have? How patronizing of them.

The meme about Google+ Circles is that it beats Facebook on privacy because it gives us upfront control over whom we share with. That’s true: Every time I share something I make a decision about whether to share it with the public or some of my circles. That is better, clearer, and easier than digging into Facebook’s settings once and for all to silo my world. It is better than not bothering to change those settings and depending on Facebook’s defaults, only to find them change and become more public. Google+ got to learn from Facebook and start with Circles to enable this difference.

Except I have watched my own behavior with Google+ lo, these 36 hours and I find at when I share with less than everyone it is not out of privacy or security needs. It’s out of relevance. I may have something to tell my TWiT colleagues or my fellow journowonks that would bore everyone else who follows me. So I restrict my audience not to keep a secret but to reduce noise for them, which I can’t do on Twitter or can’t easily do on Facebook. I am still sharing; it’s better sharing.

The journalist talked about Zuckerberg and Google wanting us to share — and they do because, as I’ve said, they depend on getting us to generate more signals about our interests, needs, and desires so they can gi e us more relevant, thus valuable content, services, and advertising. But in the journalist’s phrasing I heard him implying that Zuckerberg and Page were squeezing stuff out of like toothpaste tubes, against our wills.

Nonsense. As I say in Public Parts, 600 million people can’t be wrong. We are sharing a billion things a day on Facebook alone because we want to, because we find value in it. That’s where the discussion should begin, with the power of publicness, not with the presumption of privacy.

Government’s presumptions

I was delighted yesterday to see a senator — Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania — warn his colleagues against “breaking the internet.”

Some are in such a rush to regulate the net and protect what they and media think is our highest priority — privacy — that they threaten to both hamper how sites and services and operate and how they can sustain themselves.

Jay Rockefeller is pushing do-not-track. John Kerry and John McCain have a privacy bill. Al Franken has a bill to limit sharing of location data with third parties (those “third parties” are becoming the boogeymen of the digital age, though they are often just companies that serve ads, provide web services such as analytics, and sell us stuff).

I’m not suggesting that all this legislation is bad. We do need privacy protections. Sites must give us greater and clearer control over what we share to whom and why (as Google seems to have done with its Circles). Phones should not be storing information about what we do without our knowledge and without giving us control over it. Stipulated.

But I fear unintended consequences. Rockefeller’s do-not-track could pull the advertising rug out from under web sites, forcing some of them to go behind a pay wall — if they can — and killing other sites, reducing the content on the web. Franken’s location bill, I learned this week, does not have a carve out for sending data to ad-servers (they are dreaded “third parties”), which could kneecap the local-mobile content industry before it even starts.

Politicians and media companies are coming at these questions at the wrong starting line: as if we go to the internet to take a piece of private information and squirrel it away there. That’s not what we’re doing. We’re sharing.

: MORE: On Twitter, @hasanahmad complains that when sharing a photo with a circle members of that circle could share it in turn and then it becomes more public.

Yes, absolutely. That’s how life works. You tell a friend something. Then, as I say in Public Parts, the responsibility for what to do with that lies with that friend; what you’ve said is public to that extent and whether it becomes more public is a decision your friend will now make. It may be fine to share in turn; it may not be. You’d need to set those conditions with that friend before sharing. And if you don’t want the friend to share, maybe you shouldn’t share. The issue here isn’t technology. It’s people. No change there.

So I asked my Twitter interrogator what he proposes we do about this: Put license conditions on the photo we share? Sue the friend?

This is where Eric Schmidt is right. I’ll paraphrase him: If you want to hide something, the worst place to do that is on a social network. That’s where you share. Your brain is where you hide secrets.

: SEE ALSO: Jonathan Allen on sharing for purpose v privacy.

  • Jeff, great post.

    Wanted to know if you saw this post from Judge Kosinski on the 9th Circuit.

  • Matt

    Jeff, you aren’t a college student who is out partying but also has his mom on Facebook. You aren’t an atheist with religious parents. You aren’t someone who’s still partly in the closet. You’re not the wrong political party in the wrong place.

    You’re a public figure whose identity is well known. You don’t necessarily have as much to hide.

    • Matt,
      No I’m not. I”m saying that the problem with keeping something secret once it’s shared is not with the technology but with the person with whom you shared it. That’s where the trust and ethical issues enter.

      • Javaun Moradi

        Human trust is, and always should be, the foundation. But , I can’t fault my otherwise trustworthy friends where sites like Facebook modify their privacy policies on the fly or make feeds open by default. That’s almost predatory. I like to say there are two kinds of trust. One is that I trust you to be honest and ethical. The second is that I trust your ability to deliver on your word. Some of my most trustworthy and ethical friends in the real world are not technically savvy; I cannot trust their ability to wade through byzantine privacy controls to keep my information secret; therefore, I have to hold from these otherwise trustworthy individuals. I can’t blame progress or technology entirely, but good companies make it easier.

      • JohnNL

        @Javaun Moradi: +1. The act of sharing needs to be the result of a conscious decision. This requires transparency and control, which is achieved with policy and technology. I really hope Google does a better job than Facebook.

      • @Javaun: We must remember that one of the entities we’re sharing with is the company transmitting the data. If you don’t trust that company with that data, don’t share via that means. This does not require laws. That requires that we select the means of sharing as carefully as whom we share with. It is the same thing as not having an argument with your wife in a crowded park. Think about where you share as much as with whom. No laws needed, just discernment.

    • Yes, I acknowledge that in my book. But I also say what’s wrong in those cases is often the reaction of the disapproving more than the action of the disapproved: our norms.

  • Having the option to post privately isn’t necessary a fear or avoidance of sharing publicly. What people want is the option to do both or to simply share different types of messages with specific audiences. I might want to share a particular idea with a specific group to whom it relates, not my parents, neighbor, coworkers, etc. I might want so share family photos with my in-laws, aunts, and uncles, but my tech circle probably isn’t interested in that. In some cases, I might want to share publicly like when my daughter and son were born.

  • Hasan Ahmad

    This is where I disagree with Eric Schmidt and you though I respect both of your viewpoints. There is a something you don’t share. There is something you share with everyone and there is something you share with a close group (set) of friends. You are looking the public and private but not the third option of social network

  • As they say “once it’s on the internet, it belongs to the internet”. People complain about security reasons, but the way I see it, it’s just like every day life. If you don’t want to offend someone or share a “secret” with most people, you just don’t talk about it. You only write or say what you want people to know. Works the same way for the Internet. Don’t want people to know your thoughts? Don’t bring them out to the light… or the net I should say.

  • Javaun Moradi

    Good post Jeff. I’d be splitting hairs to disagree with on given points, so I won’t. I do agree with Matt above, and I think why we have pending legislation and a backlash is that the the pendulum swung way too far into “everything should be open”. Facebook pushed the limit on this one and continued to not learn from their blunders: constant privacy revisions, making feeds public by default, and the Beacon fiasco. Beyond the scenarios Matt presents, we all have a desire to separate our (varying degrees of) public life from our private interactions with close friends.

    Concerns around private information are fed by much more than social networks. Credit card companies mine my purchases, profile me, and probably know quirks and private personal matters that I haven’t even told my parents. Grocery stores offer us bonus cards and then build complex pictures about who we are. And yes, as you mentioned, one can only guess what else our phones are storing besides (as you noted) cached geodata.

    The grassroots internet can survive just fine if we put privacy and data restrictions on it. It is, as you mentioned Jeff, the business models that suffer when we clamp down on data privacy.

  • In Germany we love to talk and think about privacy and privacy settings. Most of us fear Streetview and facebook and so did I when we relocated from Germany to New York this January. But I have changed my mind and I started using social media more the way you do this in the US.

    Today I agree with Jeff’s post absolutely. But my thoughts and doubts about sharing all the stuff lead to another point. Most of the ‘social’ posts are reposts, retweets or copies. I fear that more and more users of any social media platform only come to use and copy shared input. But there will be only a few providers of original input. Especially social media tempts users to like and +1 stuff they didn’t read or even understand. But it’s cool to be an active part of the community.

    As Jeff wrote, it’s people. But using the power of publicness are they wise enough to know who shares? And are those who share most of the content as independent as they should be?

    Perhaps this is just a yell for the quality in journalism.

  • I agree with you, fighting for privacy on a social sharing network is a bit of an oxymoron. You don’t want something commonly known, don’t put it online. That’s the most effective privacy policy of all.

    My privacy concerns aren’t with Google, Facebook or even my cellphone. It’s with banks who collect reams of genuinely private data, sell it to others or worse yet, leave it unprotected like the Citibank issue recently where nearly $3 million was stolen from customers after their servers were hacked. My problem isn’t with the phone company tracking my gps, its with the government coming in with secret warrantless “requests” for that information. My problem is with the new black boxes on all cars that are designed to he accessed remotely by transportation authorities without our knowledge, will or consent.

    If they truly want to protect privacy, its the government that needs to be regulated and who we need protection from, not Facebook.

    • Ryan

      Agree 100%. The problem with the whole post is that broader issues of electronic communication are being conflagrated with petty gripes about consequences of naive misuse of a Social Network.

      Government and Corporations seem to feel electronic correspondence should be exempt from protection (free speech and privacy). This idea is abhorrent to me.

      • Javaun Moradi

        +1 Ryan. It’s all ones and zeros. As the internet is increasingly interconnected and almost every site is either personalized or stores data, the definition of what is a social network is becoming moot. A conversation that solely focuses on one area — social media, eCommerce, financial and health records — can’t holistically address online privacy.

      • Agree: Mail should be mail and should carry the same protections no matter the medium.

  • Nanker Phelge

    Jeff, I hope you look at all the information Google and Facebook keep private. When information about the Viacom-YouTube lawsuit leaked, Google went ballistic. Facebook may have suppressed evidence in a lawsuit. (The fact that the lawsuit is ridiculous doesn’t matter – this is still illegal.)

    Why don’t they practice what they preach?

    If Silicon Valley loves open-ness so much, why all the NDAs? Do you address this at all?

    • We agree.

      Put that in your history book.

      • Nanker Phelge

        Duly noted!
        Although I rarely agree with you, I give you due credit for practicing what you preach where transparency is concerned. I wish Google and Facebook would do the same – and I wish more journalists would call them on it.

  • Hi Jeff

    There are two quite separate issues here that tend to get conflated and bundled into a box labelled “privacy”. Partly because the visible intersection sits with the usual suspect organisations (facebook, google, twitter et al) and partly, i suspect, because of lazy technical journalism…

    1) the amount of your content that gets reflected by social media / commodity publishing back out onto the open web. so all the usual stories around your embarrassing party photographs being discoverable by prospective employers, parents etc

    Which isn’t so much a privacy issue as an informed consent issue: understanding (and ideally controlling) the extent to which you share content. I’m not sure what your definition of social is but as hasan says above, “There is something you don’t share. There is something you share with everyone and there is something you share with a close group (set) of friends. You are looking the public and private but not the third option of social network”

    What you’re talking about here is publishing to the wider public via a “social network service”, not publishing to a “social network”. They’re very different things.

    The only reason this is difficult is because social networks emphasise the social graph element of the interaction (friends and followers and followees) so you lose track of the context you’re sharing in. I’d recommend reading danah boyd’s Privacy and Publicity in the Context of Big Data and Risk Reduction Strategies on Facebook.

    As other people have commented social network services are not the best place to place your private thoughts but mitigating against embarrassment is really more of a digital literacy problem than anything that gets solved by legislation

    And for your quote:
    > But in the journalist’s phrasing I heard him implying that Zuckerberg and Page were squeezing stuff out of like toothpaste tubes, against our wills. Nonsense. We are sharing a billion things a day on Facebook alone because we want to, because we find value in it.
    I’m not sure anyone’s ever claimed “against our wills”. The concern is more about “against our understanding of context”

    2) the amount of your data / content absorbed by organisations and passed onto 3rd parties. Like the first problem part of this is about explicit actions on the part of the user (post a comment, publish a photo, post a tweet). But it’s also about the tracking of implicit user activity (the facebook like button tracking your browsing on the NHS site eg).

    This has absolutely nothing to do with students posting drunk photos on Facebook or the usual media scare stories except where the same organisations happen to be involved. Unless you’re technically savvy there is no way to stop this or most people don’t even realise it’s happening. Understanding 3rd party cookies is difficult (but there’s a handy picture here

    You also say:
    > “third parties” are becoming the boogeymen of the digital age, though they are often just companies that serve ads, provide web services such as analytics, and sell us stuff)
    There’s a multitude of possibilities hiding behind that “often”

  • T? Th? Linh Ti?t

    It’s obvious that the two most hated words on the internet are “ad supported” which translates into many of the things you espouse in your concept of “publicness”, but which most people would just think of as “no privacy.”

    Seems like you’ll be banging your head against the wall trying to convince people otherwise.

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  • EB

    People want to know what is being shared, tracked or served to ad companies. They want to control if it happens or not. When a person deliberately posts a photo of themselves is one thing. When a “third party” comes through and gleans something from the picture in order to serve up ads is the part people don’t like.

    Maybe people should just assume that whenever we engage online, even on free services, we should just realize we’re opening ourselves up for data mining.

    Not everyone knows that, yet.

    • Neat that you are a spokesman for humankind.

      I’m not arguing that some people would agree. But one could find someone who doesn’t like anything some other person does. That’s not a sane basis for managing relationships and businesses and thus an economy. I don’t much like, say, ads in newspapers. But without them, there’d be no newspapers. So tough luck to me, eh?

  • Some people limit the distribution of their posts out of concern for relevancy, others out of concern for privacy. Others post comfortably without limits. The goal should be to provide a messaging environment in which users can choose, on a message by message basis — with reasonable defaults, how their messages should be routed and what their scope should be.

    • Agree, Bob. My argument here is that there is no 100% security because in the end one relies on another human being. They are not as consistent as algorithms, eh?

      • Jeff, there is never 100% security in any of our computer-based systems… Folk not in the business seem to find it hard to understand that, but it is true. We simply can’t build systems that are 100% guaranteed not to disclose information to the wrong people. However, we can make it hard to disclose information accidentally and, if we’re really smart, we can make it hard to do so without leaving an “audit trail.”

        One of the really cool things about Google+ is that if you do the easy thing and “share” some posting, then the author of the original post gets a notification telling them what you’ve done. Certainly, you can avoid this reporting, however, Google+ makes it more likely that people will be aware of the re-sharing of their content. As long as you accept that there is no 100% secure system, you should recognize that anything that provides the original poster more information about the disposition of their posts is a good thing.

        You might consider covering this general idea of “auditing” or reporting in your discussion of privacy for your book. Often, people aren’t so much interested in absolute privacy, but rather simply desire to have some sense of control or knowledge concerning the disposition of the data. Various auditing or reporting functions, like what Google+ does for sharing, can help to make people more comfortable with sharing more.

        bob wyman

  • Just posted about this on Google+ actually:

    Do you have every meeting at McDonalds, or out in a loud public square? It’s not just about privacy. It’s about managing noise and context.

    Sometimes, you want a party, sometimes you want a quiet room with a few people. Sometimes, you’d rather discuss something with only a select group, for the time being.

    Agreed, if you’re talking about medical or financial issues, keep it out of any social service. But, it shouldn’t be about binary hide/share in social – it’s about semi-permeable social cell walls that maintain a high concentration gradient of interestingness inside.

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  • Hey Jeff, I’m wondering if Public vs. Private is even the right way to be looking at this. I may not be able to articulate this well but I believe that there’s a bit of doublespeak with the term “privacy.” In the US, and presumably other modern democracies, we have a native love for privacy – it’s something that’s drilled into us. We should value privacy. But the privacy that is a native value in democracy is privacy from authority – from government – not from each other. A better term for this might be “personal sovereignty.” It’s privacy in the sense that we are private citizens, that our privacy can not be invaded; presumably by authority. This is the same sense as “private property.” It suggests a degree of autonomy; of sovereignty within our own small realm. This is a much different concept than privacy from one another. While I’m neither conservative or libertarian, the idea of the nanny state begins to crop up in this because, viewed this way, the government now seems to be trying to protect us from ourselves. That is not the privacy promised by democracy, but it is conflated with personal sovereignty-style privacy and we are thereby fooled into believing that the protection is necessary. The irony is that true privacy, in the sense of being private from authority, is compromised in these laws. The problem isn’t only that the people in charge do not understand the world that they’re playing in but also that the people being played with don’t understand the subtleties of the concepts involved (this could be likened to the misuse of the term “theory” when people claim, “evolution is only a theory”). I find it interesting that as we move further into an information age that specificity of nomenclature becomes more and more important for proper communication and public discourse.

  • Coming form Denmark, Europe I share your fear of unintended consequences as a result of legislation based on ignorance. Anyway: you say “we don’t come to social services to hide secrets; that would be idiotic. We come to share” – you’re right we don’t come to HIDE secrets, but we might come to SHARE secrets. It’s obvious that total privacy – as in: I’m the only one to know can’t be shared, but for most people, (hopefully) only a tiny proportion of our secrets are found in this category. Most secrets, if not all, are characterized as being a secret to all but a specific individual or specific individuals. A fairly important part of our social life is about finding like-minded people to share your secrets with. If SOCIAL media can’t handle that it’s bad (for business). After all, if you can only share what everyone can know, social media is nothing but everyone’s megaphone – and how cool is that? … Maybe that’s where all the noise comes from?

    • Rasmus,
      Yes, but once you’ve told someone, what happens to that information is in their hands. It is out of your control. It is also out of technology’s control. But there seems to be an assumption growing that technology can fix that. It can’t and won’t. This is a matter of the relationship you have with the people the tell, the conditions you put on what you share, and the trust you share together.

  • Dear Jeff,

    I’m happy that I’m not alone with my vision of the power of social sharing.
    I’m looking forward to your book about this.

    Thanks a lot and kind regards from Germany.

  • Yair

    Hello Jeff,

    About privacy….what is your opinion of Google cancelling the Google Powermeter Software program?

    Everybody is telling that the reason of this cancelation is privacy.



    If you want it to be private, don’t say it. not to your spouse, not to your priest, not your lawyer, certainly not co-workers or friends. When you need to tell, the lawyer has a legal boundary, the priest a moral one, your spouse perhaps, perhaps not. Privacy, keep your mouth shit and fingers still. If you do not, its your fault.
    Shop with cash, no cards of any kind. Have no subscriptions, use an alias.
    The pretend that big business and big government is not spying on you. Might as well live in that delusion, I see no reasonable option.
    I choose to be public, about most everything, except decision making process. I’ll let you know when I want, might even ask for your advice. But everyone else, especially big corporations and legislators, stay the hell out of my decision making process.

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  • Rick Thomchick

    Jeff – you are brilliant but I think the connection between social networks and privacy legislation is tenuous. It

    No, third parties are not boogeyman, but it is a cold hard fact that there a lot of people out there who are harvesting social data for black-hat marketing and even identity theft. The perils of data brokering are well-documented (eg ChoicePoint), as is the practice of using adware for malicious tracking and information-gathering. This is especially dangerous in a social environment where there is assumed level of trust and wolfed enter the herd.

    The legislation being put forth by Franken and other is not about harshing our facebook mellow. Its about getting us up to speed with rest of the civilized world. The US is not up to par with the data privacy and protection laws in the EU, Asia or even parts of South America.

    Forget Facebook for a minute–think about your mobile phone service. Your account information is electronic, it’s online, and your service provider can claim a modicum of ownership over that data. You do not have the legal right to know what they do with that data or with whom they are sharing it.

    Here’s another example: you visit to watch their latest viral video. Ten you share the video on facebook, and “like” it, which is equivalent to a commercial endorsement of Marlboro. Then you sign up healthcare insurance and find out your premiums are twice as high because the insurance company has access to the session data. Is that fair?

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  • “Your brain is where you hide secrets”, or is it just where you keep stuff until you find a way to share it?

  • “when I share with less than everyone it is not out of privacy or security needs. It’s out of relevance.”

    That’s exactly how I feel. On Twitter and Facebook I find myself holding back a lot because I know some things will probably only interest a few people and bore everyone else. So I end up just not sharing a lot of things that I think would be really interesting and relevant to some people. I know it is possible to set up that sort segmented sharing on FB, and I do sometimes, but its kind of tedious. Its a lot easier on Google+ which is one thing I like about it. In fact it seems like Google+ was designed with that intention in mind.

  • glenn

    I just can’t help re-reading this post replacing “social media” with “telephones” and “sharing” with “wire-taps” and wondering how it holds up.

    We communicate through media and we select the media based on whom we wish to share content with and how. It is not an outrage to do so on the assumption that the medium won’t betray us on that.

    Of course, the friends with whom I share content have the power to share that content further. I have empowered them to do so, based on my knowledge of who they are and based on our friendship. I do not wish to grant the same power to anonymous advertisers or others whom I do not know and whose interests I may find suspect.

    Your paraphrasing of Eric Schmidt is binary: either you share with no one or with the whole world. That’s crap. There are plenty of grey shades.

    For the record, so as not to overlook the economics of this: Yes, I am fully prepared to pay a monthly fee to have an ad-free Facebook account with a total privacy guarantee, like I pay a monthly fee for use of the medium of telephone to share other things privately. I think that anything up to perhaps $4-5 monthly would be reasonable.

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  • To me it appears like a problem of conceptualization: Since social networks are “only for sharing”, some people feel they are supposed to share almost everything and others get the impression of that being normal.

    Therefore legislation aims at the wrong target, too, namely privacy. An adequate use of sharing and social networks would not make that kind of legislation superfluous, but many problems that are discussed nowadays would not even appear as such in the first place. So reminding people of a phrase like “First think, then share.” might be more efficient than any kind of new law to my view.

  • Web showed us a different way, way of sharing and not hiding. That is why the social network sites are so popular and revolutionary. I personally think that there is nothing I should hide. Every mistake I made is human. Amongst mistakes there are some good things, so why not share them with everyone. In that context I was thinking a lot about the people who Matt mentioned in his comment like an atheist with religious parents. I do understand theirs position, but going online should be deliberating and open, so ‘religious parents’ better deal with their own issues soon.

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  • I think it’s more the younger generation that doesn’t realize what’s going on. Anyone who is posting on this forum understands exactly what they’re doing when of Facebook or the internet in general and some people use it to escape their harsh reality. But, the younger kids just think that they can post whatever they want and it doesn’t matter and sadly enough, many of them find out the hard way that it does by losing their job, incrimination, etc.

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  • Whoever earlier said that privacy is more about what the user decides to share than the site he/she shares it on is exactly right. I go on the principle that if I don;t want the whole world to know I won’t post it on my facbook or twitter. The internet is too volatile a place anymore and with companies’ desperate attempts to up their target marketing campaigns, they are willing to do almost anything to get this type of information. Facebook has toned down a little bit and tightened up its privacy policy, but should still approach with caution. My family’s safety is also at stake with these privacy issues. Just the other day I ran across a friend sprofile and was amazed at how much personal info was on their page. I’m talking street address, cell phone #, and they were even one of those habitual posters you tell you almost even when they go to the bathroom. Thanks for the article, to hopefully add some awareness to any out there who are not already aware of the dangers and haphazzard handling o four personal business.

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