January 14, 2010

Can We Live In Private and Demand Companies Be Open?

The growth of social services enables us to share an ever-increasing granularity of our lives with complete strangers who opt in to sample our updates. From traditional blogging to Twitter to location sharing services, and now, Blippy (which displays my purchases online and lets me follow others' spending habits), I can live my life open and transparent, letting you know what I like, what I do, where I go, and how I spend my time. In parallel, we are also asking businesses to be more open. Thanks to SEC regulations and Sarbanes-Oxley, as well as best practices, we expect public companies to tell us how much money they have, how much profit they made, where they made that money, how many employees they have, how much they intend to make next quarter, and a blizzard of other things that fall under the guise of information.

Now, we're even asking some companies to open up their kimono and blog themselves, to respond on a personal level with Twitter and other social networks, or open source their code, and let us know who their investors and partners are, lest we find they may have some bias. So yes, it's easy to see that open, open, open, is the word of the day.

This Week's Target: Facebook

Looking at these trends, it seems clear to me that the overriding move in both personal and business is to remove barriers and enable more visibility into activity. Yet, there are still pockets on the Web who see the data they share as needing to be under lock and key. The most recent kerfuffle was flamed by the often independent Marshall Kirkpatrick, who slammed Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg for moving the once-closed social network toward increased openness, and reduction of what he termed "privacy". While others, notably TechCrunch's Mike Arrington, thought that argument to be overblown, Kirkpatrick followed that post with another line of questioning, asking how we would react if, for example, Google revealed our contacts in GMail and our subscriptions in Google Reader.

In the non-connected life, one was always taught that there were a few things one does not ask about in polite company - including politics, one's salary, and sex. Yet, the Web has made finding out most of those things very obvious for public members of society. We know what the vice presidents of many companies make, and we know the dollar amounts on contracts. We can do searches online and discover what political parties people are registered to, and where they put their money in the last elections and fundraising cycles.

Forget Location. Who Have You Slept With?

Although I was only joking, somewhat, I suggested to a friend this week that a new social networking service should be introduced that updates your stream with your sexual partners, and encounters, complete with their partner history and total number of partners. Given some's willingness to post all their data online, and the rising casual nature of some behavior, this isn't so far out of reach to be completely ridiculous. Just think of what message that would send if you were the "mayor" of multiple places on that particular network?

Yet, before that level of debauchery occurs, we still have to recognize that the trend Zuckerberg and his team are recognizing is true. The first rule of sharing things online is to expect that they will be discoverable by search engines and viewable by anyone. Even the closed, secure, password-only sites are usually potential victims for copy/paste, and are always susceptible to screenshots.

From Anonymous to Open. We're Getting There.

I understand the Internet's roots require a level of privacy, and you see many people still clinging to the antiquated hope of anonymity, assuming one can hide behind a user name and avatar to mask their true identity. I understand the concerns some have that the more data which is shared online makes them more vulnerable offline. But I am seeing prominent people talk out of both sides of their mouth when they claim to push companies to get more open and more transparent, while at the same time, clinging to the hope that we can push our content into a safe place on the Web and consider it "private".

During the week's discussions around Facebook and privacy, Marshall had some solid points, in his comments on TechCrunch, saying that people were joining groups and "fan pages" on the social network that had to deal with sensitive personal issues, such as infertility or friends of same-sex couples. His concern was that this data would be surfaced and revealed in a way that was not desired. In a week of drum-banging and emotion, I thought those examples to be the most reasoned. It makes sense, then, that sites like Facebook make the ability to hide certain affiliations from public view if so desired. If I chose to sign up and follow Fox News, and not want my left-leaning friends on Facebook to know, then I should have that option to hide the details from my page. But to fight against the tide of open in our own lives while demanding the tide of open be ever loosened when it comes to the companies we engage with seems bizarrely silly. Let's pick one and stick with it. If you don't trust the companies, then why should we trust you? What are you hiding?

Of note, and I mentioned this in comments to ReadWriteWeb, the notion of Facebook data being private is in itself the exception rather than the rule. You can see my Twitter stream and who I follow or don't, just as you can with FriendFeed and other networks. I have chosen to share my Google Reader feeds with you on Toluu and encourage others to do the same. The world is trending open and transparent, and you can embrace that or you can fight until you are blue in the face. But choose a side.