There’s something surprisingly tragic about Apple’s latest touching, brilliant commercials for the iPhone 4’s FaceTime. At the end of each of these commercials — the first four below are vignettes about two new babies, one new hairdo, and a new set of braces — I feel a need for the people on either end to hug. But they can’t.
Now, of course, the video call only brings them closer together than a plain old telephone call could have — or an email or an SMS or (does anybody send them anymore?) a letter. That’s what makes Facetime so miraculous: it is finally almost like being there. They can almost touch. And that’s what’s tragic: they can’t.
This is to say that FaceTime is terribly intimate. And that’s what struck me, too: In an instant, the video of the people shifts from broadcasting to intimacy, from making a YouTube video millions may see to making a call for one. Is this how we’ll use video now, to connect two-at-a-time? Or will that now seem smalltime? Will we use the front-facing camera to face the world still? Will video be public still or private?
I don’t know the answers to those questions. We’ll know only when these tools get into the hands of enough people — and when developers use the camera to create new applications and when AT&T gets its act together so we can use the camera anywhere, not just on wifi.
Maybe the original video vision of Seesmic (before it became a Twitter app) comes to life: we hold video conversations. Maybe the camera only makes it easier for anonymous pervs to peddle their penises on Chatroulette. Maybe we walk away creation toward communication. Maybe we leave time-shifting for live. Maybe we invent new forms of phone sex. Maybe Leo Laporte uses them to reinvent the podcast and cable news uses them to reinvent vox pop. Or maybe nothing changes as we already have cameras everywhere; these are merely more portable.
Watch the commercials and see what visceral ping it elicits in you.
See MC Siegler breaking down the emotional appeal of the iPhone ads on TechCrunch here and here.
* 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.
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.
Here is video of the talk I gave at re:publica 2010 in Berlin on The German Paradox: Privacy, publicness, and penises. (Don’t be frightened by the first moments in German; it’s just an introduction and a joke — with fire extinguisher — about how I had threatened to Hendrix my iPad on the stage in Berlin.)
My subject is all the more relevant given this week’s letter to Google with privacy czars in a handful of countries trying to argue that Google Streetview taking pictures in public violates privacy. In my talk, I argue that what is public belongs to us, the public, and efforts to reduce what’s public steals from us. Journalists should be particularly protective of what is public; so should we all. (The czars also argued, amazingly, that Google shouldn’t release betas. They come, you see, from an old world of centralized control — and the myth that processes can be turned into products, finished, complete, even perfect — instead of the new world of openness and collaboration.)
With so much discussion — even panic — about privacy today, I fear that we risk losing the benefits of publicness, of the connections enabled by the internet and our interconnected world. If we shift to a default of private, we lose much and I argue that we should weigh that choice when we decide what to put behind a wall — and there are too many walls being build today. But we’re not discussing the benefits of the public vs. the private. I want to spark that discussion.
I use Germany as a laboratory and illustration of the topic not only because I was there but because they have something nearing a cultural obsession on the topic of privacy. What’s true there is true elsewhere, including the U.S., though only to a different level. I also only skim the surface of the topic in this video; there is so much more to talk about: how publicness benefits the ways we can and now must do business; how it affects government; how it alters education; how it changes our relationships; how young people bring a new culture that cuts across all national boundaries and expectations; how it multiplies our knowledge; how it creates value; how it leads to a new set of ethics; and much more. But that’s for another time and medium.
And here is a slice of an illustration of my talk by AnnalenaSchiller.com (who tweeted beforehand about having to draw a penis for the first time in her talk-illustration career) that appeared in the German paper Der Freitag this week:
Yet more: Here’s an interview with dctp.tv in Berlin that summarizes my views:
: LATER: Penelope Trunk, who lives in public, writes: ” The value of your privacy is very little in the age of transparency and authenticity. Privacy is almost always a way of hiding things that don’t need hiding.. . . And transparency trumps privacy every time. So put your ideas in social media, not email.”
: AND: I just got a message on Facebook from the woman I talk about in the Sauna in Davos, the one I said was an American freaked by the mixed, nude crowd of sweaty Russians and me. She thought it was quite funny … especially because she’s French (living in America).
As a group, Germans are more private than anyone I know. My German grandfather-in-law used to lecture me: “People do not need to know that.” Germans complain about Google Streetview taking pictures of them … in public. They’re going after Facebook on privacy. They say that Google Analytics violates privacy. They even enable convicted killers to expunge their names from Wikipedia out of privacy. And now they’re up in arms about airport body scanners.
Yet go into a German sauna, and there the Germans are, male and female, together, sweaty and naked. Germans protect the privacy of everything but their private parts.
I do think we have something to learn from their sauna attitude. On my last trip to Germany, I got addicted to the sauna — no, not to gawk and, since my surgery, certainly not to show off anything (as I’ve revealed, I’m in a chronic state of shrinkage, or should I say, Sternage?). When I first visited a German sauna, I had the surprise Americans have and just decided to go with the flow: When in München….
But when I was in a Davos sauna (a very cool one in a log cabin outside the hotel) with a bunch of sweaty and naked Russians, the door opened and an American couple almost came in, until the wife saw me and shrieked (I do hope it wasn’t for the reason above). She slammed the door and pulled out and we heard her husband pleading, “No, really, it’s OK, honey. Yes, it’s supposed to be co-ed.” She came in after all, hermetically wrapped in her towel (a violation of German sauna etiquette) and sitting as stiff as a church lady, looking only at the ceiling. It was not relaxing for her. I suspect it was not going to be a relaxing evening for her husband, either.
So what’s the more mature attitude about privacy and publicness and the body? I’ll vote with the Germans on this. And that makes me ask why what’s private is private — a question worth asking as we hear so much about privacy in the internet age. One way to pose this question is to ask what harm could come from something private becoming public.
Start with the Germans: What’s the harm of being naked — especially when everyone else is? As I’ve written here before: In the company of nudists, no one is naked (I’m still trying to convince my editor thats a book title). So you have breasts and I have a penis. Surprise, surprise, surprise. Perhaps you could blackmail me because of the current state of mine, but when I went to a public sauna in Munich, I saw every possible body flaw. Even the Germans know there’s no harm in revealing one’s body.
What’s the harm that can come from revealing something else about oneself, as adults fear young people are doing in excess in Facebook and the web? The issue, I’ve long said, is not privacy but control: We have a right to control our information and how it’s used. But all this talk about privacy could make us withhold more than ever; it could make us downright antisocial. So I’ll ask again, what harm will come from publicness? Where’s the line?
* I don’t want to reveal anything about myself that robs someone else of their control of their privacy. So even though my current state of things may be obvious, I’m not going to talk about my sex life because that would violate my wife’s privacy. I wouldn’t make all my email or phone conversations public — as if anyone should care — for the same reason. I should pull no one into my glass house.
* I’m hinky about revealing what I make – most of us are. But why? I suppose I fear someone trying to scam me or beg me for money. But teachers don’t make much. You can easily find out what professors at CUNY earn since, if you live in New York, you’re paying me (up to $90k is the answer). I’ve revealed what I make from my blog (average of about $15k). For some reason, the publishing industry likes to leak what is paid for book advances. I reveal my consulting and speaking gigs. So you could probably come close to guessing my income. I have no reason to publicize it but I also am not sure what the harm is.
* I don’t want to reveal anything that would enable someone to steal my identity for financial ends or to impersonate or attack me or my familiy. So, of course, there’s no gain to be had and much harm to be gained from revealing passwords, account numbers, addresses, and the like.
* No one wants to be embarrassed and so we don’t want to reveal embarrassing things. But who to say what’s embarrassing? It comes out of our fear of what others will think of us. So others do. As a journalist, I’m embarrassed to make mistakes, but I’ve had to learn in blogging and Twitter that correcting mistakes enhances credibility. It’s not the mistake that matters but what you do about it. And, yes, the argument is made that young people will regret putting their drunken party pictures online when it comes time to apply for a job. But I say that as we shift generations, the bosses will have their own embarrassing party pictures and they will find themselves in a state of mutually assured humiliation. In What Would Google Do?, I hope that this stand-off might yield a more tolerant society.
What else? Is it possible to say that anything else is fair game for public sharing? Put that way, and it smacks of exhibitionism: My life is an open blog. So I prefer to turn the question around now and look at the benefits of publicness that we lose when we make something unnecessarily private. I’ve said that revealing my prostate here brought me great value: support, links to sources of information, incredibly candid and helpful previews from patients who’ve gone before, and the opportunity to spur others to check for the disease. Without revealing my cancer in public, I’d have received none of that benefit. I also argue in WWGD? that there’s value in the aggregation of our knowledge: if we all chronicled what we were doing 24 hours before the onset of my other condition, heart arrhythmia, would doctors find new patterns? If we all shared and could analyze our repair records for our Toyotas, would we surface dangerous flaws earlier? Not revealing such data may indeed someday be seen as antisocial.
So the Germans inspired me to ask about the line between private and public and why it’s there: merely cultural convention or self-interested reason? Fear or legitimate concern? And what is the cost of privacy?
They also inspired me to come home and try to install a sauna.
: LATER: In the comments, Howard Weaver nacks me for saying “merely cultural convention.” I didn’t mean to belittle but to separate whether the cause of a convention is purely cultural or whether here are practical reasons (e.g., women in some culture hide their laughs out of convention but there’s nothing obvious bad that is going to happen to you if it is seen; but someone taking my credit card data can have real impact).
The more important point I meant to emphasize is that, of course, decisions about what’s properly private and public often are cultural and it’s fascinating — using the Germans and their saunas as a starting point — to examine those differences and use that to make us question our own assumptions. In the comments also a Scandanavian points out that there, you can indeed look up what your neighbor makes
: The other point I should make is about those body scanners. Some say that it’s different choosing to take off your clothes in a sauna vs. being denuded in a machine. Yes, but my point is that if we all as a culture saw exposing our (formerly) privates as no big deal, there’d be less of a hubbub about using the machines and perhaps we’d be safer as a result. In the U.S., we giggled about the guy with the bomb in his underwear. That embarrassed laughter could, in the extreme, cost lives.
Similarly, at Davos, I spoke as a patient at a dinner about prostate cancer and I said that our skittishness about talking about things having to do with the penis (or fingers up our asses) is keeping men from the doctors and killing some of them. Privacy can kill.