Rian van der Merwe published a post which touches on a recurring theme which I have been thinking about for a while: we should fear Facebook/Google/Twitter because of all the data they hold about us.
I keep wondering why? There are good reasons to be afraid of what these services may know about us in some circumstances. If, for example, you are in a country run by ruthless despots, being identified as the person behind a Twitter profile advocating revolution is worrying. If you are engaged in criminal acts, you should be worried that the authorities may be able to use your Foursquare or Facebook location data to tie you to your escapades.
On the other hand, if you live in a country that doesn’t (overly) victimise its citizens and leaves you to express yourself legitimately and without reprisals, what do you have to fear from these major social services? Certainly sharing your home or children’s schools’ locations could compromise their and your security and you should be concerned about that (or you just shouldn’t share that information in the first place). Facebook could decide to make all shared updates public and expose your private thoughts. That could be worrying too.
But what about Facebook knowing more about our preferences and activities and presenting us with more relevant (if somewhat annoying) ads? Why is that a problem? Sure, we would probably mostly prefer not to see ads at all but Facebook is free, is really large and requires a lot of mine to operate. The same is true of Twitter, Foursquare and Google services.
Conventional wisdom is that if you are not paying for a product, you are the product. That may be true, as a generalisation. I prefer to think it isn’t so much we who are the products on Facebook but rather our preferences and attention. What does that buy us? For starters, it buys us Facebook, Twitter, Google services and more. It also buys us slightly less annoying ads that can be remarkably relevant. It buys advertisers a better chance that we may want to buy their products and services (we’re not doing that because our lives or our loved ones’ loves are at stake) because those products and services may just be what we are looking for at that point in time.
I’m not so sure we should be afraid of social networks. We should be afraid of persecution dictatorial governments and overreaching government bodies that make use of what we share to further their oppressive agendas, but social networks because they enable sharing in the first place? I don’t think so. What should concern us more is our ignorance of what our privacy controls are on different services and our failure to make smarter and more considered decisions about what to share and where to share that.
In many respects the social services we have today give us more ways to safeguard our privacy than we had when the social Web was largely comprised of blogs and discussion fora. Back then (about a decade ago), sharing was public and if you wanted to share something on the Web with a select group of people, you either password protected your blog, published posts with password access enabled or shared limited content with pre-approved people (limited sharing on Flickr comes to mind).
Facebook and Google+ enable users to share selectively using Facebook Lists or Google+ Circles. You can create lists or circles to suit your sharing preferences and ensure that only the connections you want to share something with, will see it (for the most part). Unfortunately, that level of sophistication can also be accompanied by a degree of complexity in the sharing controls. Both services have options for closed groups or communities in addition to selective sharing at a post level. As a user, it remains your responsibility to explore your privacy controls and make sure that they are configured for your sharing comfort level. You should also bear in mind that whatever you share online could still be made public through a policy change or an exploit so decide for yourself, in advance, what you will never share online and you don’t share that stuff. Good examples of stuff not to share include identity numbers, your home address, where your kids go to school or even your home phone number (it could be cross-referenced with your name to locate your home address in a phone book).
One trend that bothers me is a shift to Twitter for personal sharing. Twitter gives you two options for sharing: publicly or completely privately. I suppose this largely depends on what you are comfortable sharing publicly. Your Twitter profile is public by default and this means everything you tweet is public and anyone can see it if they know where your profile is. The alternative is a private profile where sharing is limited to followers you approve. Twitter doesn’t really have selective sharing capability like Facebook or Google+ and it is the equivalent of trying to have a conversation in a crowded room. You may think you are talking to a select group of people but you potentially have a much larger audience.
Another option worth mentioning is Path which a mobile only social network and which is designed for only your real friends and family. It is a beautiful app and a terrific sharing experience but the challenge, for me, is that very few of my friends and family are using it and that diminishes it value to close to zero. If my close friends and family were using it, it would be a terrific choice. For now, I have set up my Facebook lists to emulate the sharing capability I would have in Path.
Social services like Facebook have been somewhat cavalier with our data but a spate of privacy controversies and increased attention from regulators has persuaded these services to take greater care with our data and our privacy options. Using social media is not a risk free proposition by any means but the social Web gives us the ability to share in ways we just weren’t aware were possible a few years ago. The real cost is vigilance and increased personal responsibility but that is how it should be anyway. After all, it is our data and our lives we are sharing. We should take responsibility for that anyway.