Reflections on Privacy

For many people, the primary privacy concern is the "no parents" concept – we don’t care who sees things as long as our "parents" don’t see it (where parents can be anyone we don’t want to see things – professional contacts, straight-edge acquaintences, terrorists, Julian Assange, etc.). This is what I term the exclusive privacy model: start with the public and begin cutting people out. However, this "public minus parents" idea doesn’t make sense. Online, you just have to logout to see this information. Offline, all someone has to do is talk. Facebook was originally marketed this way: here is a place to post information where only Harvard/Ivy League/college students can see it.

This exclusive model is the most common privacy misperception. Information spreads, and by consciously recognizing this privacy becomes synonymous with trust. For example, you send an e-mail, confide in a friend, or upload a photo. This is private information, but is capable of being shared or forwarded in any number of ways, both online and offline (e.g., gossip). Its reach is mitigated by social convention and our own discretion.

Google+ gets this inclusive privacy model right. First, it always explicitly states who an item is being shared with, not who is being excluded. When resharing an item that was shared with a limited circle, it notifies you of the original intent, highlighting the priviledge and trust placed in you. Just like an e-mail program’s forward button, each piece of content has a share button and the API will allow for all data to be federated outside of Google+. However, you also can disable the reshare for each posting. Someone else can always copy-paste your content, but it won’t be computationally linked to you.

Privacy isn’t just about information, it’s about image as well. Google+ enables full control over your profile. Instead of posting to your wall or tagging you in a photo, people communicate with you directly through limited shares which do not appear on your public profile. Photo tags don’t appear in your albums until they are approved. A box in the upper right corner of your profiles allows you to view it as any other user. Voyeurism is all but eliminated, as you do not see a constant stream of external interactions. Facebook has some of these settings, but they are not as pervasive in the profile.

The Next Step

Google+ seems to have figured out a better way to handle privacy – both in terms of information and image – but the next social networking revolution is targeting: I don’t care who sees what I post, but I am self-conscious about overloading people with irrelevant information. My ideal publishing model wouldn’t be about circles of people, but streams of tagged content. If there existed a service where you could follow a person, but mute certain content streams (such as local events, politics, etc.), we’d have perfection. For example, friends in Kentucky don’t care about tornadoes around Bloomington. Professional contacts may be extremely interested in my philosophy and technology content, but don’t care about what concerts I’m going to. People who aren’t in the same circles (hometown friends, college friends, professional contacts, etc.) may share interests in internet humor or politics, while others consider unfollowing me because of it. None of this information is private, but I don’t want to innundate the world with extraneous chatter. If a social network can figure this out, that’s where I’ll plant my flag.