Sunday, 13 December 2009

Facebook, Woods, and the Morality of No Privacy

Facebook posts on Google and Woods soon on Oprah. Are we being pressured to give up our privacy?

Two recent and unconnected events may have very well defined the expectation of privacy that we take into 2010 and put a greater economic as well as moralistic premium on sharing personal information.

On 10 December, social media network Facebook rolled out changes in its privacy policy.

With the default privacy setting as ‘everyone’, Facebook’s 350 million users are being encouraged to share more personal information – location, photos, videos, posts – with those outside trusted circles of friends.

And effectively, with Google and Bing of course.

High premium on sharing

Of course, it must be mentioned that the new Facebook policy affords greater granular control of posted information, and continues the option for customised, restrictive privacy settings. Having taken the trouble to review and reset mine, I for one am glad that I have been offered the choice not to share party pictures with “everyone, forever.”

However, FB’s emphasis on openness signifies a slight but important change in policy and ideology for an industry leader.

With even the rather private Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg opening up his profile to the public, the premium on sharing and openness is exceptionally high.

As a user, I get the distinct feeling that my decision to have fewer people find me and not to contribute to a more ‘effective’ online search experience, doesn’t sit so good with the guys at Facebook, Google, et al.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s comments are almost scolding: "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place."

Privacy as amoral? 

And here, the purpose of information sharing changes from economic benefits and knowledge gain, to take moralistic overtones. And it’s not just limited to information online.

Take the Tiger Woods situation (as it has indeed turned into) – Woods’ extra-marital shenanigans is everyone’s business now and a very public apology is being suggested as the only way out for golf’s biggest personality.

Intense scrutiny has meant that the normally reticent sportsman has already taken the decision to issue public statements about his “transgressions” and finally confess to his “infidelity”.

But that’s being considered far from enough. With sponsors getting cold feet, congressmen giving up campaigning for a Congressional medal for him (“in light of recent developments”), it would seem that Woods is being pressurised to forgo privacy for a tearful confession on Oprah.

‘Woods chose privacy, and look how that turned out, so no more privacy’ seems to be the prevailing sentiment. Take sports journalist Rick Reilly (ESPN) who makes a example of Woods as he writes:
He needs transparency. Let us into your life a little. Do the "A week on the road with Tiger" story. Give a home interview once in a while. Let people check in the closets and under the bed. Prove to the world you've changed. Because "no comment" and three security guards are only going to make people suspicious.
Sure, as a public persona, Wood’s personal life would always be an interesting conversation point, and the subject of constant tabloid speculation.

The issue however, is not about the intrusive media coverage or online insights into personal life, thoughts and behaviour. The worry is that as the decade ends, we're going to be pressured into volunteering to give up privacy concerns, or else face disapproval, self-righteousness and lectures on morality.

Image courtesy Markus Meyer aka Sunside, CC-BY-NC. 
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