Is Facebook really to blame for your privacy issue?

Photo:Glass Home by Carlo Santambrogio and Ennio Arosio.

Jeff Jarvis wrote a great post yesterday about Facebook, privacy and the theme of his upcoming book – publicness. I can’t wait to read it – seriously, Jeff, write fast – as it provides much-needed clarity around the web’s hottest issue: privacy.

Critical to his post was the distinction between the ‘private’ public (that’s the one we create ourselves, for example, on Facebook or twitter) and the ‘public’ public (the one that extends beyond the limits we set to the broader public sphere). In practical terms he explained it this way:

In Facebook, we get to create our publics. In Twitter, we decide which publics to join. But neither is the public sphere; neither entails publishing to everyone. Yet Facebook is pushing us more and more to publish to everyone and when it does, we lose control of our publics. That, I think, is the line it crossed.

I think Jeff is spot on here and this raises an even broader issue: who is responsible for creating a ‘public’ at all, whether it be the ‘private’ public or the broader ‘public’ public by Jeff’s definitions?

At the heart of this question are the often unforeseen, little considered and perhaps unfortunate consequences of an open, real-time web. For as time, distance and access to information dissolved in the face of tools like the internet, Facebook and twitter, so did the role they played as the tent poles of our privacy. These were the tools we used to define where we began and where we ended for public consumption, but as transparency rose so control of our privacy declined. In short, what we gained in the form of access to information and connectivity on one hand, we lost in control on the other.

As such, I don’t think it’s fair to lay the blame for this at the feet of Mark Zuckerberg as the Mail & Guardian assert. As the founder of Facebook and pioneer of so much evolution in the social networking space, he is duty bound to cross these rope bridges to the future first – stumbling, falling and recovering all the way – as we all reach towards an ideal balance between the greatest benefits of an open web and the fullest protection of personal privacy.

In fact, the incremental concessions each of us made by joining social networks, sharing more and more of our lives within them and finally cross-pollinating that content has enabled this expansion of ambition to occur. As such we are all complicit and should not be surprised by what is happening, nor forget the benefits we have enjoyed so far.

In truth, I suspect there is no ideal balance to be had between the two. Rather, I believe we are witnessing the latest shouting match in the tireless cultural dialogue between the offline and online worlds that serves to re-negotiate a deal between the appetite of technology and the privacy tolerance of its users.

So, like Jarvis and Paul Carr at TechCrunch, I don’t think Facebook had gone rogue as WIRED asserts. It is simply doing exactly what it must do when you consider that Facebook is focused on realizing the fullest potential of an open web for its users. I suspect that Mark Zuckerberg, from his unique and high vantage point, has accepted that long-standing notions of privacy are now irretrievable. And further, that as the weight of the open web presses ever outwards, the responsibility for an individual’s privacy must rest with the individual in how her or she participates, what he or she shares and what personal communities he or she builds. Capacity does not mandate participation – that is a choice each of us, and not Mark Zuckerberg, makes. Yet we can’t have it both ways. If we enjoy the best benefits of an open web, we must re-frame our understanding of individual privacy and the deal we have consciously or unconsciously struck for ourselves.

So the rising tide of push back against Zuckerberg and Facebook – including Matt Cutts, Peter Rojas and Peter Kedrosky – is completely appropriate. This is the necessary exchange that occurs as the past and future move in lock step towards whatever is next. Facebook’s attempt to make the entire web social is not the first or last privacy battle to be fought, but without doubt it is a major and potentially bloody one.

For my part, I choose to focus on the positive potential of an open web and the benefits it may have in store for us all. My privacy concerns, while critical, take a close second place. This is a choice for each of us to make. Jarvis explains his position well:

I will argue that the more we live in public, the more we share, the more we create collective wisdom and value. I will defend publicness. But I will also defend privacy—that is, control over this decision.

Managing privacy and publicness is a delicate balancing act. But so is protecting who we think we are today and enabling who we can become. Armed with my participation or its withdrawal as protection, I am excited, hopeful and optimistic that an increasingly open social web holds in store unimaginable possibilities as to how we can improve our world together. How about you?