Is Facebook really the one with the identity crisis?

Image: ceo.biz

Today Mark Zuckerberg travels to D.C. for a Congressional Briefing on privacy. While this will probably bring the privacy debate to a boil, I wanted to return to a Zuckerberg statement revealed last week that was largely overlooked in the emotion of privacy pushback. The statement was extracted  from David Kirkpatrick’s upcoming book, The Facebook Effect by Michael Zimmer and reads:

“You have one identity,” he emphasized three times in a single interview with David Kirkpatrick in his book, “The Facebook Effect.” “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.” He adds: “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”

To some, this statement appeared simplistic, naive and eminently dismissable. Stowe Boyd argues that its limiting to define ourselves by any single identity or platform, stating instead that:

“…our identity is increasingly becoming a network of partial identities, linked together by the overlap (if any) between different communities’ constituencies and the princieples that they stand for.”

He even went so far as to postulate that Facebook may be doomed because user expectations were overturned. While I agree with Boyd that we each possess a multi-faceted, ever-evolving identity, I believe that what Zuckerberg is alluding to is the dissolution of long-standing walls between our private and public identities. So while our individual identities inevitably morph, migrate and grow, it’s the seamlessness of this process between the on and offline world that he is responding to. This is no small issue and one of that Zuckerberg is keenly aware of. Kim-Mai Culter wrote a very thoughtful SocialBeat piece to this effect, outlining Zuckerberg’s very considered statements about the role Facebook, the web and how information sharing will impact the future of business, personal lives and our world.

So while commentators like Human Rights First dismiss Zuckerberg claiming that Facebook simply “doesn’t get it”, I believe the management at Facebook has a deep understanding of the issues surrounding user rights and privacy. They have to as each day, like any company, Facebook performs a delicate balancing act between serving its own interests and those of its customers or users. As CT Moore suggests, it’s naive to imagine Facebook would not seek a monopoly in its marketplace. And I, perhaps like Zuckerberg, accept the fact that the invasion of our privacy was complete a long time ago (even if we are only beginning to realize it). Is this a good thing? Probably not. Is it a reality? For sure, and one which we (and Zuckerberg) must come to terms with if we are to engage on the web.

Zuckerberg himself is clear open to the scrutiny. The pressure on Facebook and him personally has been intense for several weeks and rightly so. He has apologized (albeit through a ghost writer) and Facebook announced today “simpler, easier to use” privacy settings. Yet, as I argued earlier, ultimately the responsibility for privacy rests with the user. For once we choose to participate in the open web by sharing information on social networks, the same transparency that exposes issues related to government or corporate behavior shines equally brightly on us.

This issue will not be solved today or this year as we continue to live out our private lives in public by sharing photos, posts, tweets, emails, video and SMS messages. Perhaps Zuckerberg was overly simplistic in his communication, or perhaps that statement needs to be read in the context of a much broader explanation outlined in Fitzpatrick’s book. Either way, I believe the issue Zuckerberg addresses, and the privacy debate at large, is much larger than any one person or social network. It is a symptom of this stage in the socialization of the web and, once resolved, will more than likely be replaced by another, equally challenging, issue.

Do you believe Facebook is to blame for a bait and switch? What about Zuckerberg personally? Will you be staying with Facebook or going?