Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Change Facebook or Change Ourselves?

As a result of Facebook’s ongoing privacy debacle, a number of conversations have emerged as to whether or not privacy matters in this so-called “new world.”  As the story goes, we (particularly those of us who are members of Gen. Y) have become used to putting our lives online: We tweet about what we ate for breakfast, we share photos from last night’s partying, we rant about our jobs and our children (there’s even a blog to make fun of that).

danah boyd, referencing David Kirkpatrick, refers to this as “radical transparency,” or the notion that we’re better off putting our whole selves out there.  In practice, many of us already do, in part or in whole.  For me, it’s simply easier; I choose to be radically transparent and sometimes too honest, because it’s easier than attempting to protect things online.  If I don’t want it out there, I keep it off the Internet, simple as that.  I’ve lived my offline life that way for years, so it’s a natural extension for me.

But as danah also points out, radical transparency doesn’t, and shouldn’t have to, work for everyone.  And that’s what’s frustrating about Facebook’s stance.  Founder Mark Zuckerberg has made his vision abundantly clear:

“You have one identity… The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly… Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity” – Zuckerberg, 2009

He has a point, of course; my generation and the one after it are proving to be oversharers and so, as Scoble points out, we’ve reached a point where it makes sense to build skills to understand the impact of sharing online.  Graduating seniors looking for job interviews would do well to look over their online profiles and think about whether or not anything available publicly (or for that matter, to a group of friends; it only takes one fight to make a friend an enemy) could embarrass or affect them negatively down the road.

What is most frustrating to me is how incredibly privileged and U.S.-centric Zuckerberg’s viewpoint is.  Certainly Zuckerberg’s statement doesn’t take into account places where it might be dangerous to have a Facebook account.  In many places, where being gay is a dangerous prospect, saying you are or joining a group that outs you on Facebook is too much to bear. In Syria, where Facebook is blocked, simply having an account could potentially (though to be clear, this has not happened yet) leave you open to monitoring by the government.  Not to mention the fact that, while Facebook encourages transparency, it offers neither that nor an appeals process when it deactivates the accounts of activists, many of whom live in places where online activism is easier or safer than its offline counterpart.

But it makes sense that Zuckerberg would think that way: He is a man of serious privilege.  He’s a man with a net worth of $1.5 billion, who is attempting to make decisions for the masses.  And he’s well aware of how global his company’s users have become.  And not even Mark Zuckerberg makes his profile available to all.

zunguzungu has written a beautiful piece analyzing Zuckerberg via DuBois, and then comparing the former to Christopher Hitchens, another man of serious white privilege who feels the urge to dictate to the masses (in this case, usually Muslim women) what is best for them.  Zuckerberg:Facebook users::Hitchens:Muslim women:

Just as Hitchens never has to worry about Muslim women telling him what not to wear, neither need the owner of facebook ever need to worry about being surveilled against his interest or will, or of it mattering much if he is.

Hitchens, of course, views himself as siding with the minority, the oppressed.  It’s apparent in the way he patronizingly speaks of “saving” Muslim women from their evil burqas; he portrays himself as the benevolent feminist, either totally unaware or completely, radically aware of the political purpose he’s serving.  Zuckerberg, I would imagine, views himself as the “every guy,” the average Joe with a Facebook page…after all, he’s what, 26?  He’s Facebook’s original demographic, and so, as founder and early adopter, what’s best for Zuck must be best for the rest of us.

Zuckerberg’s mentality probably isn’t that far off from the reality of many young (particularly American) Facebook users.  The majority does set the reality, and the reality for many of us is that transparency is just easier. Egyptian blogger Alaa Abd El Fattah admits that he’s probably more privileged than the average user, but says that his take is that we “[had] better embrace this, stop assuming any privacy of any kind, [and] start admitting [we] live in a post privacy world.”

Alaa (who had this entire conversation with me publicly on Twitter) also makes the point that, in some cultures, such a semblance of privacy never existed anyhow, or is secondary to other issues.  Sami Ben Gharbia‘s comment on my last blog post seems to back that up.  His point is that, even if non-western activists want to quit Facebook over privacy concerns, it’s simply not always an option, as Facebook is sometimes the only centralized means of organization.  In Sami’s own words, “For me, and I’m sure for other people, Facebook is an information mining. Most of the citizen media videos and photos are being published there. We cannot afford to quit it as we will make ourselves more isolated from the average users.”

I mostly agree with Sami’s point, which is that privacy is secondary to the importance of the network, for many.  That same point is evidenced by the sheer amount of attention the privacy debate on Facebook is getting in comparison to the deactivation issue.  At the same time, the fact of privacy remaining secondary might only be possible because radical transparency is a very western, individualistic idea.

Privacy, however, whether a top priority or not, does affect all of us.  Based on conversations I’ve had with an extremely varied group of people, it comes down to this: You are ultimately in charge of your life online.  You choose what you put on the Internet. And while I’d like to think that it’s a priority to push companies into giving us a choice, from experience, I can say that I don’t think Facebook gives a toss. Which brings me to my final point, which is actually less of a point and more of a question: Should we keep spending our time trying to change Facebook or does it make more sense to accept that it’s our responsibility to control our online identity?

5 Comments

  1. saw the link on your facebook profile and surfed over to read. i really like the analogy you made to hitchens on this issue.

    while facebook is a COMPANY, a money making endeavor by simple definition, which i think some people fail to remember, zuckerberg’s attitude is still overtly cavalier.

    i understand from my other reading on the topic that organizations like the EU have sent facebook letters asking/pleading for more expansion of the privacy debate.

    when things like that happen, it’s clearly not your everyday online hangout anymore.

  2. Answering your question on the final line: I think users have to accept that it’s their responsibility to control their online identity and what information they share wth the rest of us. To make it simpler for me, I don’t have a Facebook account. I’m pretty sure I won’t change my mind about that, and I know it’s a very radical stance.
    Saludos.

  3. I think the whole idea of radical transparency is very, very naïve. The concept of privacy seems to become old-fashioned. Big mistake. Western governments and corporations are no better then others, in some respects, especially where the rights of the individual is concerned. People like Zuckerberg paint a false picture. Don’t forget he’s making money because people put their whole lives on his web site. Should things become ugly for whatever reason, he can buy himself an island, and hire a private army to protect himself, but all the people that have shared their whole lives all over the Internet have nowhere to hide.

  4. here’s my issue with facebook: the “social network” or whatever, if you could call it that at the start is negotiable, was built by networks of students and friends at colleges and later, high schools, and still later, friends, etc., etc. there have been some problems along the way, mostly professional crises with privacy but on a personal level, since the network was built upon personal relationships, wasn’t that nothing was ever disclosed about the decisions they were making but that the information taken was never disclosed.

    why? because it changes the behavior of members when they know what is being done with the intimate (er… i guess that’s a loaded, romantic, term but “IRL relationships” would work as well) online. it just feels weird.

    if facebook admitted dealing with that weirdness as a business, which i bet is way weirder than users know, then i’d be cool with them doing whatever they want. as it is, however, only activists and other business people are voicing their concerns. for that, i respect them both more than facebook. at the same time, in my gut, i really do think that facebook should die slowly and painfully in the social media world.

    seriously, most of my college and high school friends are on there or else i would be out but in my generation, this is the place we communicate and stay in touch. screw ’em for messing with that and thanks jill, for letting me vent here.

    your post is awesome.

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