Privacy Reboot Needed

Dens co-founder of @foursquare

I’m sitting in a talk listening to Dennis Crowley, co-founder of Foursquare (that’s a photo of Dennis during the talk above). I’m sure you’ve heard of Foursquare, but with it we check in.

In the building there are 101 other people checked in. Keep in mind this is NOT New York. It is NOT London. It is NOT San Francisco. It is freaking Omaha, Nebraska!

On stage Crowley is explaining where Foursquare came from. One slide he has is when he took a trip to Denmark he posted a map of where he’d be going onto Flickr. Within minutes he had dozens of comments from his friends giving advice of where he should go.

People ask me why I friend everyone on Foursquare (I have more than 7,000 friends, all added manaually). That is exactly why: my life has gotten much richer since everyone shares where they are located with me. Many even share their phone numbers, Twitter accounts, Facebook accounts.

This sounds like the worst thing for privacy ever, right?

It is.

But I find that we’re also finding out a new construct of what privacy means.

I really love danah boyd’s thoughts on radical transparency. She says that most people don’t want to be radically transparent like me.

But yesterday Gary Vaynerchuk said you will check in if you get free beer. Damn straight!

People are already checking in before the free beer has arrived.

And that gets to the heart of our new privacy construct: we will share our privacy +if+ we get something in return.

Most of the compelling arguments I’m hearing about Facebook is that Mark Zuckerberg has forced us to share something private WITHOUT giving us the “free beer” in return. Or, at least, Zuckerberg hasn’t explained what we are getting in return for his throwing our privacy under the bus. Let me explain.

Facebook used to have a privacy setting that would let you hide your social graph (geek talk for who your friends are) from me. Today you can no longer hide your friend graph and some other profile details, like what kind of music you like.

See, this is why people think I’m on the wrong side of the privacy problems Facebook is having. I see that there are real benefits to being radically transparent and so do many people (more than you would think).

But on the other hand, I think Zuckerberg is wrong to rip away something we thought was private and give that over to the world without properly explaining the “free beer” we’re getting in return (or, even, giving us a choice in it).

That said, Facebook is a free service that I don’t control. Neither do you. The only control we have is whether we use it or not. I’ve decided to use it, but have already gotten ahead of Zuckerberg: I’ve turned every privacy setting to “as public as possible.” If Zuckerberg wants to make Facebook as public as Twitter or as public as Foursquare, I’m cool with that, but will not use it to store anything private.

I think we need a reboot on what privacy is in this new world and when we need privacy.

And, as radically transparent as I am with tools like Foursquare and Twitter I still need privacy. I still need to know that Google won’t take my email into public. Some people have called me a hypocrite because I won’t share my Gmail password. They are right. There are some things that we need to keep private.

I interviewed Maryam (I’m her husband) the other day about how she approaches privacy on Facebook. She has a nuanced view of it. If Zuckerberg throws her privacy under the bus (she hasn’t perceived that he has, yet, you should listen to what she says about Facebook — her views match more what I’m hearing from most people, not the pundits) she’ll change her behavior.

She is clearly willing to give away some of her privacy (she doesn’t care, for instance, that you know what restaurants she’s liked on Yelp — she sees that as different than photos of our kids or discussions of our life).

The thing that Zuckerberg needs to explain is why we should believe that Facebook won’t take even more privacy away in the future. I believe Facebook HAS lost a lot of trust here and has overstepped the line. It took me a couple of weeks to get there because I live such a public life and I don’t use Facebook to store anything private (I really do wish Facebook had an even more public setting than it already has for the same reason I use Foursquare — I see that by being public my life gets better). But Zuckerberg did overstep the line by not giving us the choice and, worse yet, not giving us the free beer in exchange for throwing our privacy under the bus.

So, where do we go now? It’s clear Facebook is something different today than it was six months ago. Something a lot closer to Twitter or Google Buzz. Let it all hang out baby! And that’s cool, I’m still going to use Facebook and so is Maryam. It still is a very valuable service. But it is clear that Facebook can’t be trusted with really private data in the future. It’s not Gmail or Hotmail.

What is the reboot we all need?

1. We need to realize that putting anything onto a computer COULD become public. Even private emails COULD be dragged into public view. Jason Calacanis had an email dragged into public view that I’m sure he didn’t want put into public view. At Microsoft I learned that anything I put on a computer could end up on the front page of the New York Times (several executives had that happen). So you are always safe if you never put anything on a computer you aren’t willing to see in the New York Times.
2. We need to get over our “privacy.” Services like Foursquare show that there’s a lot of benefits over sharing your previously private info. Even Facebook now is showing me music on Pandora from my friends. That’s freaking awesome and a major side benefit of Zuckerberg throwing your privacy under the bus.
3. We need more skills to understand the impacts of sharing online. Early adopters need to explain the pros and cons of sharing better. I’ll try to do more of that in the next few weeks.
4. If Facebook wants to be trusted it must make a privacy contract with its users that will have real consequences if Zuckerberg throws it under the bus. I don’t know what that looks like. This is why the alternatives to Facebook just don’t matter either. They all could break their privacy contract with us. Even Google or Microsoft could and we all know it. So, we’re just going to have to live in this new world where privacy is a myth.

How do we have that privacy reboot?

Now, excuse me, I need to check in on Foursquare, join me there as I throw my own privacy under the bus.