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Doc Searls frames danah boyd’s recent talk on privacy at SXSW as a loss of control. The internet’s applications and engagement with society have resulted in a loss of control over one’s privacy. But this is misleading. It suggests that one might have had control in a more personal setting – that an in-person meeting might charter one’s ability to shut another up, impounding the information forever. Did we ever have that level of control? No.

But Searls has tapped into something. It stems from a fundamental disquiet around the social contract that Eben Moglen describes in Freedom in the Cloud with Facebook, among other social networks: “I will give you free web hosting and some PHP doodads and you get spying for free all the time.” He’s tapped into the disquiet around actual control over the architecture of social interactions. It’s control, not the lack thereof, that is startling.

The architecture of social interactions, to be sure, is a loaded phrase. For our purposes, it can be simplified and thought of along three dimensions. First, it reflects the conditions under which one might share information. One might share a status update with Friends on Facebook or tell a colleague of a weekend about town over coffee. Second, it speaks to how another might absorb the information – ranging from listening carefully to surveillance of Friend’s wall on Facebook. Third, it is shaped by how people think about their audience. Are these systems for addressing individuals or groups? A person or a public? boyd’s talk glances upon this, but does not tease out its underlying influence on sharing and surveying.

It would be wrong to say that we ever fully controlled sharing or surveillance in any of the real world interactions of which boyd speaks wistfully. These encapsulate a flexible, mutable set of considerations and circumstances that one might make or be subject to with each interaction. Should I tell so and so? Is this the right place for it? Will someone overhear? What will they do with the information once they have it? We can edit ourselves, choose the conditions of how we share information. But we have to make compromises. We can make judgments around the setting and the person. We might even influence how they treat the information. But we don’t control what they do with that information. We may be careful, but we don’t really control any of it.

Social networks and interactions on the internet, however, introduce actual control over how we share with and survey one another. Control amounts to the easy ability to publicize what boyd calls personally identifiable information and personally embarrassing information. There are two parts to this: the ability to share more effectively and pervasively; and the ability to listen and survey more broadly. It’s not that we are giving up control, as boyd says. We didn’t have it in the first place. It’s that we’re seeing it for the first time. Control is over publicity, not privacy, and it sits with whomever or whatever has the information.

A discrete email might feel selective and appear to impound the information forever, but it can just as easily be circulated to another and another and another. That email or Facebook photo or blog post, unlike hearsay and the slow erosion from memory of a coffee-shop confession with a close acquaintance, can circulate with alarming ease and absolute fidelity to the initial confession. Indeed, systems on the internet don’t so much impart control over privacy, but over publicity. In a matter of keystrokes, damaging, embarrassing or otherwise hilarious information can be shared, surveyed, and shared again – increasingly open to the deliberate or serendipitous surveillance of many more people than might otherwise be intended. Each digital footprint stirs with potential energy.

The rising claim that privacy is dead, boyd suggests, imbues these systems with a prejudice for publicity. Fulfilling Moglen’s social contract, social networks design their systems to increase the velocity of sharing and improve the powers of surveillance. The obvious example comprises the PHP doodads from Moglen’s quote, but the counterpart is how social networks change how people present themselves and the information they share. It’s a change that shifts participation toward publicity.

Social networks orient one’s sharing and surveying toward groups, not individuals. The orientation levels one’s relationships according to various categories of access. One group can see only your public profile. Another, your entire wall and collection of embarrassing photos. But everyone is addressed in the same way through status updates, postings: each according to their clearance, and without regard for who they are individually. A user wrestles with the idea of the public, not the idea of a friendship.

boyd characterizes Twitter accordingly and starts to draw a distinction from Facebook. She suggests Twitter “evolved to be primarily about those seeking an audience and those seeking to follow or contribute to a public in some way.” Users invent a persona and participate in a system designed for publicity. She argues that Facebook, however, is “still fundamentally about communicating with a specific set of people who are, by and large, your friends.” But suburban Facebook’s engineering, through likespostszombies, encourages addressing a group, a public, not an individual — even before the recent changes in privacy policies that accidentally may have led to some over-sharing by unsuspecting users.

Sharing with a public, surveying a public – these activities engage the public. They not only depend on the public, they drive publicity. boyd warns us with a distinction, “there’s a big difference between something being publicly available and being publicized.” But the shift toward control in the architecture of social interactions erases the difference between publicly available information and publicized information. Public information is publicized information.

The shift that we’re observing is one toward greater control, not less. Enhancements to one’s ability to share and survey information introduce massively distributed control and gear the engines of publicity. With each individual arranged as a node in the network, equipped to survey and share as they wish, oriented to an ever changing public, we are seeing a shift toward control, not away. And with it, the realization that more control means more publicity.

this push towards things becoming more open is probably the most powerful and transformative social change… We may be the company that really leads this movement….It’s not clear that anyone else is going to manage it correctly.

Mark Zuckerberg, outlining the steady erosion of the concept of privacy in our time: WSJ

Jessica Vascellaro’s cover-story in the WSJ seats Facebook in a tension between going public and Zuckerberg’s remarkable ability to “delay gratification” and take a seat in “a long queue of tech barons with grand ambitions.” The real story, however, may be in her subtle jibes at one who might become “world’s richest twenty-something.” More than a thinly veiled personal attack, Vascellaro may be hinting at something more substantial: that the question of privacy in the 21st century will be meaningfully shaped by an ambiguous and controlling figure. Read the rest of this entry »

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