Sunday, October 3, 2010

Privacy and the Success of Facebook

A long time ago, my good friend AL once observed that the notion that people valued privacy was vastly overstated. As he put it, 'Give people a chance, and they can't wait to tell you everything about themselves.' Amazingly, this holds true for unflattering things too - law enforcement has known for a long time that criminals will confess an enormous amount, if given the right encouragement. The urge to tell people about ourselves is deeply rooted in human nature.

Given all that, what exactly do people mean when they say they want 'privacy'? For most people, it's not that they want to be left alone. Celebrities aside, very few people suffer from having so many damn people wanting to hang out with them that they never get time to themselves. As a wagering man, I'd say most people have too few people calling them to invite them out to do fun stuff, not too many.

What people really mean, I think, is that they want to control the image of themselves that other people have. Often they want different images for different people, but that's part of it too. As long as you can give them that power though, they'll tell you everything. I think that distinction is why privacy advocates never understood how many people signed up. "They're all being fooled! Don't they know that anyone can see this stuff?" Of course they do. But as long as it's flattering stuff, who cares?

The narrative of every photo album is the same:

"Look at me! Here's me out at this rad party that you never heard about! Here's me surrounded by these three hot chicks, and it's implied that I might be sleeping with them, even though I'm not! And you're sitting at home on facebook! Here's me on holiday at this fabulous tropical island, while you're at work trying to waste time without catching the boss's attention!"

The worst offenders were friends who went off to Oxford and Cambridge, and apparently became infected with a burning desire to tell everyone how awesome things were there, in photo form, constantly.

Honestly, with the business plan of 'let's give people the chance to broadcast contrived, idealised versions of themselves to the world, with the explicit aim of making their friends and acquaintances jealous', how could you NOT make money?

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