Being anonymous is a powerful thing and can be used for many good purposes. Sadly, social media seems to ignore virtually all of them.
Just yesterday I was blogging about how the systems that gave rise to social media created an environment where people are becoming disconnected from one another. This is related to being anonymous because many platforms do not authenticate users so you have many people not using their name or any name. The resulting disconnection can lead to cyberbullying and I wondered if perhaps the technology that brings people together is also driving some people apart through this disconnection.
But after considering two stories I’m also wondering if social media has completely screwed up anonymity and if there’s a way we can reclaim it.
Here’s the first story. It’s a cute little tale about whether your dinner party needs a social media policy. (Hat tip to my friend @MarcVock for sending me the story.) The writer had a dinner party that included some social media heavyweights and the resulting photos, check-ins, and status updates resulted in potentially millions of people seeing details about a private event. He got a text from someone wanting to stop by for the party while it was going on. He later heard from someone else who liked his kitchen lamps. Neither of those people were invited over. It’s a cute story with only a modicum of creepiness–certainly it would come as no surprise to someone reading a blog about social media legal issues that there may be some tension when a private gathering has some social media celebrities or heavy users: the private event will end up being something less than private.
But compare that story of a dinner party gone public to the much more sobering tale over two college students having their sexual orientation outed on Facebook. (Hat tip here to another friend, Will Spence.) The students did all they could to set their Facebook profiles to be private since the students were living somewhat openly while in college but had not yet told their family. But when another user created a Facebook group for the Queer Choir they had joined on campus, that event of being added to a public group was broadcasted to all their friends, including family members. This then forced the issue and the students were asked point blank about their sexuality by their parents. That’s not as cute as having a dinner party seen by potentially millions of people.
Mark Zuckerberg is well known for saying that you should have one account on Facebook because you are who you are–that the days of having a different image at work from the one you have outside of work are coming to an end. But they still maintain extensive privacy controls for different activities. Ironically, having more privacy controls can actually lead people to reveal more information about themselves. It’s called the illusion of control and there’s research to back it up. This Texas case wasn’t directly about that illusion–although perhaps because both of the outed individuals had locked down their profile they thought it was safer to connect with more people they were open with, and it was one of those people that added them to the group.
It has always been difficult to control private aspects of your life if some people know and others do not. That was true before social media and is even harder today when one slip and everyone can see forever. That said, have we completely screwed up the concept of anonymity? There is a long and distinguished history of anonymous speech in the social and political arenas. Today, anonymous speech is mostly nasty comments. And anonymous parts of our lives are almost completely ignored.
France has been advocating for a right to be forgotten online. This was considered an outlandish view and almost impossible to implement, but the debate continued. This year the FTC issued its report Protecting Consumer Privacy in an Era of Rapid Change where they discuss multiple times the concept of a digital eraser button that would delete individual pieces of content (potentially even harder to implement than the widespread French right which would cover all data about a person).
But aren’t we going about this all wrong? Anonymity isn’t about taking something back, it’s about not putting it out there in the first place. If I don’t want pictures of the inside of my house put online, shouldn’t I be able to designate that space as private even if friends come over who Instagram daily? If I don’t want pictures of myself or my children popping up online, shouldn’t there be a way to register our faces in Facebook’s much discussed facial recognition software so that the picture doesn’t go public? Try uploading a video to YouTube with a song in the background and you’ll see it is immediately flagged for copyright issues–why isn’t this level of protection available for personal privacy?
Benjamin Franklin famously wrote “Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.” Perhaps the rise of social media shall mean the death of all secrets. But many cultures around the world also have some version of the phrase “Good fences make good neighbors.” In addition to debating the merits or feasibility of removing information once it’s been published, isn’t it worth a discussion on ways to honor people’s wishes for privacy prior to publication?