My friends, it’s a story of hope betrayed.
As you may remember, I recently made a fragile (and generously unilateral) peace with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. It felt good. Privately, I indulged a gorgeous reverie, in which he and I played a festive game of football across no-man’s land. There was mist; there were cellos.
People, hostilities are RESUMED.
This week saw the emergence of two separate stories concerning Facebook’s recklessness with its users’ info. In both of them, Zuckerberg – an odd little half-smile playing about his lips – cradles the fragile privacy of the world in his hands, then dashes it to the floor with an insane laugh. I’m speaking figuratively.
The first centres on Groups, a new way to herd together people with whom you’re happy to share, say, your holiday pix, and touted by Facebook as being all about privacy. Damn! Turns out any member can invite new members – no way to veto which friend-of-a-friend gets an eyeful of your babbles.
The second involves a sync feature in Facebook’s iPhone and Android apps, which uploads the names and numbers on your phone to Facebook’s Phonebook (check yours out) and automatically cross-references them with other users. The app now issues a warning – it didn’t previously – but the Guardian, amongst others, reports that numbers they don’t actually possess have somehow ended up in their Phonebook. How did they get there? No idea.
Facebook insists that only you can view your Phonebook; friends – or worse, friends of friends – can’t access it. But phone numbers are not just cold data. They feel far more connected to our corporeal lives; and we rank them pretty damn high in the information hierarchy. Given Facebook’s woeful track record in this area, how many of your work contacts do you think would happy with you uploading theirs? How many would feel you had taken liberties with their privacy?
I ask, because it seems pretty clear that our idea of what is private has already undergone a profound shift.
Ten years ago, I made a documentary series about surveillance, the final part of which attempted, to a portentous soundtrack of sinister electronic beeping, to imagine The Future.
Secretly, even my fevered mind could see that the scenarios it envisaged were wildly overwrought: lives lived inside a transparent online bubble, every banality uploaded as it occurs, as text or image; nothing unsaid or undone for the sake of some squeamishness about privacy.
But here we are, and here it is. Our lack of squeam is quite remarkable. Turns out The Future is public.
The lives we live seem designed to be seen, as much as to be lived. Social media has over-sharing at its core, and it’s axiomatic that a fair old chunk of our entertainment is predicated on prodding the tenderest parts of real people’s real lives.
But hold on. Our increasingly-exposed existence doesn’t necessarily signal the death of privacy – famously declared by Zuckerberg, during an earlier brouhaha.
For those of us beyond the first flush, this public life is typically nothing more than the mere performance of transparency. We display, for hipness’ sake, a life which is apparently unfiltered, but we still hold the core of ourselves under lock and key.
As for our personal info, we guard it more jealously than ever. Most adults would no more upload their mobile number to the net than they would wear their jeans with the waistband hovering round their upper thighs.
But what about The Youth? Zuckerberg’s world-ruling plan would be a lot easier to pull off if those pesky kids could be persuaded to just, you know, drop this privacy thing – and a brief, statistically-insignificant poll of Twitter reveals that, yes, 99.9% of young people are way less uptight about it than their elders.
They behave online with a terrifying recklessness, confessing all to Facebook – apparently unable to conceive a future in which they won’t want to be seen in their keks, cradling 25l of budget cider. But here’s the thing.
When it comes to hard information, they’re no more free and easy than the rest of us. A Pew Research Centre study found that teens rarely post information on public profiles that they think would allow strangers to actually locate them in real life. No full name – and definitely no mobile number.
So there, Mark Zuckerberg – put that in your pope and smike it. I suspect you believe that, sooner rather than later, we will shrug our shoulders and accept that our info is a fair price for connection to what will, by then, be an essential utility. Maybe so – but we’re not there yet. For now, Privacy – or at least the kind that your data-scavenging platform would like to see melt away – is where it’s at.
A bientôt, mes amis!
For more social media snippets, follow @emodkate – or for more general twittery, @KateVWilliams.