As widely discussed by privacy advocates and blogs, Facebook recently changed some of its privacy settings. Users are no longer able to limit the viewing of their profile photos, home towns, and friends lists to only approved friends. Those are all public now by default. Moreover, Facebook’s new default settings “recommend” that dynamic content such as status messages and photos be made public. While the blogosphere still closely scrutinizes these changes and is aghast at Mark Zuckerberg’s ‘privacy is over’ claims made at the Crunchies awards (he didn’t actually say it verbatim but his statements more or less implied it), I have to admit I was surprised that all this stirred such an uproar. Facebook is only reacting to a larger social trend as it strives to become an asymmetrical and therefore more growth-enabled network (or communications platform) – like Twitter. Privacy, at least a more traditional notion thereof, is the collateral damage of this strategic agenda. With the value of reciprocity (narrowcasting) succumbing to the prospect of exponentiality (broadcasting), privacy is no longer commercially exploitable. “No one makes money off of creating private communities in an era of ‘free,’” writes social networking researcher Danah Boyd in a blog post in which she otherwise harshly criticizes Facebook’s move. The age of privacy as we know it might be over indeed. Is it worth fighting for?
Privacy (from the Latin ‘privatus,’ according to Wikipedia: “separated from the rest, deprived of something, especially office, participation in the government”), the “right to be let alone,” is considered a human right in most parts of the world, in spite of all cultural relativism. Historically speaking, privacy has undergone a remarkable evolution. Aristotle distinguished between the public sphere of politics and political activity, the polis, and the private or domestic sphere of the family, the oaks. If a citizen of Athens was a private man, then it meant he was stripped of any political office and therefore considered “inferior.” Later, in the enlightened civil societies of Europe, however, privacy became a hallmark of the bourgeoisie, a hard-earned privilege that marked the delineation between upper and working classes. The latter had work – if they were fortunate – the former “had a life,” because they could afford it. This life tended to be private, by definition. In the emerging information economies of the 20th century, various theories described privacy as control over information about oneself (Parent, 1983), while others defended it as a broader concept crucial for human dignity (Bloustein, 1964), or emphasized the social aspect of it with regards to enabling intimacy (Gerstein, 1978; Inness, 1992).
Throughout their historical mutations, the public and private spheres needed one another like yin and yang. Having a life was a private act, but only if it was publicly earned and respected. This dialectic relationship will always remain. There is no privacy without publicy and vice versa. And yet, while privacy may never go away as a philosophical counterweight to publicy, today it is publicy that counts as the new privilege of the digital upper class. Privacy has been marginalized to the fringes of a society whose modus operandi is based on the very public mechanisms of social sharing. In the digital era, a private life does not exist. Google ergo sum.
The search engine’s recent public stance against the Chinese government, threatening to shut down all its China operations after Gmail accounts of Chinese activists had been hacked, highlights this new power structure and the evolving value of privacy in our ever-connected world. When the privacy of Google’s users was violated, the company decided to respond with a public statement, mounting public pressure to press on an essentially private matter. Good for a company that does not want be evil, many people applauded, but it bore a certain irony that Google acted as de facto digital state with its own foreign policy. Isn’t Google, after all, built on the very principle of making private data public? Isn’t it because of Google’s mission “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” that we have come to terms with the fact that our online lives and afterlives will never be private again and will be perpetually archived in the very public cloud?
In the case of Google vs. China, what was bemoaned as the loss of privacy was in fact the lack of publicy. Privacy is the most precious asset in more or less closed societies in which trust is a scarce resource and true publics don’t exist. But as we live our lives in the openness of the web, isn’t it publicy that we need to enable and protect? An ideal publicy that is so transparent and democratic that it doesn’t need privacy as refuge?
It’s complicated. Stowe Boyd has declared this to be the “Decade of Publicy,” in which he expects “the superimposition of publicy on top of, and partly obscuring, privacy:”
“Publicy says that each self exists in a particular social context, and all such contracts are independent. (…) It’s as if we are gaining the ability to see into the ultraviolet and infrared ends of the social spectrum when we are online, and in some contexts we are dropping out yellows or reds. To those tied to the visible color spectrum we are habituated to, this new sort of vision will be 'irreal.' But ultraviolet has always existed: we just couldn't see it before. (…) This will be a fracturing of the premises of privacy, and a slow rejection of the metaphors of shared space. The principles of publicy are derived from the intersection of infinite publics and our shared experience of time online, through media like Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr. The innate capability we have to shift in a heartbeat from a given public, and our corresponding persona, to another, is now being accelerated by streaming social tools. This will be the decade when publicy displaces privacy, online and off.”
As we struggle to maintain the traditional, monolithic privacy-publicy dichotomy, perhaps we must start using a different terminology altogether and embrace a new concept: sociality. In a hyper-individualized society, sociality is becoming the main object of desire for individuals. Or as Markus Albers puts it in his forthcoming book about what he coins the Meconomy:
“The Meconomy does not entail a purely egoistic philosophy. On the contrary, it promotes a new culture of empathy and social engagement. As we increasingly decide for ourselves how, where, and with whom we work, the search for meaning gains more importance. The trend to combine economical with social engagement grows stronger. We want to do good, be happy, and make money. In the old patriarchal, hierarchical, and inflexible working world, these aims were often mutually exclusive. In the Meconomy, their combination is almost a precondition for success.”
The semantic coincidence is telling. “Me” desires “Meaning.” As much as publicy needs privacy and vice versa, the “Meconomy” needs the “Meaning Economy” – as its co-evolutionary, symbiotic partner. With meaning emerging as the core currency of all market interactions (because it is ultimately what consumers buy; and friends, fans, and followers buy into), people, organizations, and brands that provide meaning will be the power players of the new Me(aning) Economy – brands like Apple, conferences like TED, contests like the Olympic Games, sport clubs like FC Barcelona, media organizations like NPR, non-profits like UNICEF, and, yes, politicians like Obama.
Sociality may succeed privacy because it is a critical precondition for meaning. To be meaningful, meaning needs to be shared, and sharing can only occur in open social settings. Open social settings, however, by definition, compromise privacy, in all its four textbook modes (solitude, intimacy, anonymity, and reserve). Meaning means giving things a name, making sense of “Black Swans,” unexpected events. In other words: Only an event that becomes a story (which still is the most powerful social media of all times, a true evergreen on the social web!) is meaningful.
Thus, it makes sense to replace the strict privacy-publicy opposition with a multi-layered continuum along progressive levels of sociality. Sociality may turn out to be a much better variable for describing and regulating our digital lives. The question then no longer is how private we can be, but how social we want to be. Instead of privacy seetings, we should speak of sociality settings: The maximum number of friends we want to have; and through which channels we want to ‘socialize’ our contents etc. Privacy understood as sociality (as an enabling and not a defensive right) grants us the ability to control who knows what about us and who has access to us, and thereby allows us to vary our social interactions with different people so that we can control our various social relationships at different levels of intimacy.
This new sociality is most visibly manifest in online social networks. It is worth noting that these not only mirror the mechanisms of offline social interactions but actually provide users with more control over their privacy (or sociality) than they would ever have in the physical world. On Facebook and other networks, you can pick and choose the people you want to meet and share ‘presence’ with; in a restaurant, bar, and other public spaces, you can’t. Exclusivity in the real world needs to be earned, whereas online it is a given.
Bill Thompson pledges we should embrace the new liberties that come with this new radical transparency:
“The enlightenment idea of privacy is breaking apart under the strain of new technologies, social tools and the emergence of the database state. We cannot hold back the tide, but we can use it as an opportunity to rethink what we understand by 'personality,’ how we engage and interact with others and where the boundaries can be put between the public and private. Those of us who are ahead of the curve when it comes to the adoption and use of technologies that undermine the old model of privacy have much to teach those who will come after us, and can offer advice and support to those who might be unhappy to have their movements, eating habits, friendships and patterns of media consumption made available to all. But every Twitterer, Tumblr, Dopplr or Brightkite user is sharing more data with more people than even the FBI under Hoover or the Stasi at the height of its powers could have dreamed of. And we do so willingly, hoping to benefit in unquantifiable ways from this unwarranted – in all senses – disclosure. I'll argue that we are in the vanguard of creating not just new forms of social organisation but new ways of being human.”
All this openly shared user data represents not only an enourmous amount of social capital but also a huge collective leap of faith. Whether the big digital platforms and ecosystems will honor this trust to maintain civic publics or if they will choose to exploit it for (private) economic reasons, at any price, will be one of the defining moments of this young decade and the most impactful decision it will have to make. Control (as the catalyst of privacy) is good, but trust (as the catalyst of sociality) is better. We can afford to lose our privacy, but we will not survive the loss of sociality.