Starting this week, I’m implementing a rule for readers of this column.
The fact is, I express some pretty controversial views here on TechCrunch. Views on subjects like race and prostitution and terrorism and mental illness. Views that you – as a smart, educated TC reader – are perfectly able to process and discuss in a mature way, but views that could easily be misconstrued by the wider internet community, should they be reposted on other blogs, or quoted out of context.
From this point forward, then, I’m banning you from reposting, quoting or even discussing my columns outside of TechCrunch. It’s to protect my privacy more than anything else: I mean, sure, I’ve chosen to share those views online – in an inherently unsecure environment – but still I reserve the right to be shocked and outraged should they find their way from one semi-controllable online environment to another slightly less controllable one.
And I reserve that right to be outraged for one reason alone: I am fucking delusional about how the Internet works.
This week everyone‘s talking about online privacy. Specifically, they’re talking about Facebook and how the company protects user data, especially after it began sharing some of that data with ‘trusted’ third party sites like Pandora, Yelp and Microsoft’s Docs.com (whatever the hell that is). You’ve probably seen The Evolution of Privacy on Facebook animation, which illustrates in stark terms how much more open the service has become in the past five years. Everyone’s weighing in with their opinion: from Jeff Jarvis’ view that Facebook needs to respect the difference between the public and your public to Scooby’s excitement over the prospect that privacy is one step closer to the grave.
Meanwhile, you can’t throw a sheep without hitting some preachy tutorial on how to keep your embarrassing photos hidden online, especially with graduation time rolling around and college partiers trying to reinvent their image for the workplace. A typical story is told in the New York Times by Laura M Holsen who wrote yesterday about how the ‘Tell-All Generation Learns to Keep Things Offline‘…
“Concerned about her career prospects, [college student Min Liu] asked a friend to take down a photograph of her drinking and wearing a tight dress. When the woman overseeing her internship asked to join her Facebook circle, Ms. Liu agreed, but limited access to her Facebook page. “I want people to take me seriously,” she said.”
Where to begin with poor old Min Liu? Let’s first be charitable and not point out the hilarious contradiction in quietly removing photographs of your college drinking from Facebook and then describing those same photographs in the New York Times. Let’s instead consider her apparently sensible decision to ask friends to remove potentially embarrassing photographs, and to give her new boss “limited access to her Facebook page”. Privacy advocates would nod with approval at a young woman who takes her online privacy seriously, while those same advocates would – and do – call for Facebook to respect her choices and keep her private data private. Scoble on the other hand would tell her to calm down, smoke a bowl and upload the resulting photos to Twitpic.
For my part, I have a different kind advice to those like Ms Liu who want to keep private photographs private. A third way, if you like…
Don’t let them be uploaded to the Internet in the first place.
I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve heard whining recently that photographs they uploaded to the web (or in the case of Liu, photographs they presumably were aware were being taken and were heretofore happy to remain online) have now ended up in the public domain.
A couple of weeks back, a friend complained to me that a photograph of her taken at a party had been posted on a blog without her permission. The photograph has attracted mean comments which, she said, was a breach of her privacy. Hmmm. Copyright, yes, privacy no. Until the unkind commentary started, she was perfectly happy with the photograph being online – blithely assuming that only her friends would care enough to look for it. It was only after the wrong kind of people started Googling her (in her case, the wrong people were snarky bloggers; in Min Liu’s case they were prospective employers) that she suddenly became concerned about privacy.
Likewise every day thousands – millions – of college students upload photographs to Facebook, labouring under the assumption that only their friends will care to look for them. Every day those same students attend parties and pose for digital photographs, knowing full well that they’ll end up online, but again assuming that no-one but their social circle will care to track them down.
Subsequent wailing about privacy settings on Facebook or any other social network is at best a red herring, at worst disingenuous bullshit. “Oh, but my Facebook account is private…. but my Twitter stream is locked!” Oh please. If all it takes to break a privacy system is for one of your friends to copy and repost your “private” photos or tweets then they’re not private at all. The only true privacy is not to post anything on a social network that you wouldn’t want the world to see. It’s like that old advice for sending credit card numbers by email: think of it like a postcard; you wouldn’t send your credit card number that way, so don’t do it by email. Think of photos on Facebook as the colourful side of that postcard. We can blame Mark Zuckerberg all we like for killing privacy, but the truth is all he’s doing is giving us the rope with which to hang it ourselves.
I’ve written before about how as more and more of this stuff becomes public, we’ll all become much more blasé about the youthful indiscretions of others, be they friends, political candidates or prospective employees. But that Utopian future will be a long time coming: it’ll still be a couple of generations before bosses stop making key hiring decisions based on the private life of candidates. So if privacy tools are a red herring, Scoble’s (and my) dream of a world of openness is years away, and there’s no sign that college students are going to stop partying any time soon, then what advice can we give to kids like Liu to ensure they’ll still employable once their intern supervisor stumbles across their “private” Facebook photos?
Actually, it’s much the same advice as grown-ups have been giving college kids for decades: think about your résumé. The only difference between now and ten years ago when I started college is that the advice is now pluralised: now you have to think about your résumés.
Résumé number one is the one we all understand: the work résumé. From day one of college, this is the document that students obsess over – how getting these grades, joining this club, or organising this social event will “look good on my résumé”. Right from the start there’s a lazer-like focus on picking and choosing the activities that will look good on the all-important piece of paper which will guarantee them employment on graduation.
But today, thanks to social media, everyone a second résumé – call it the ‘social résumé’ – and it’s just as important to obsess over what’s going to look good and bad on it. The social résumé is the one that a prospective employer finds when he Googles your name, or when she joins your Facebook friend circle and discovers that you haven’t been quite as careful with privacy settings as you should have. It’s the résumé they find when they stumble across your friend’s Flickr account, or the MySpace page you’d totally forgotten about. It’s like the traditional section at the end of your work résumé where you list your interests “music, reading…” except that, because it’s partly crowd-sourced, it’s much, much harder to edit after the fact.
Harder, but not impossible.
Sure you should go to parties and get drunk – it’s college for Christ’s sake – but you should also train yourself not to pose for photos while you’re doing it. It’s perfectly possible if you take the idea of the social résumé seriously enough: countless of my drunken friends hold down sober jobs simply through their survival instinct of knowing when there’s a camera pointing at them, or only confiding in people who aren’t going to ‘OH:’ their every word. (By contrast my drunken exploits are a matter of public record – but there’s a reason why I’m not looking for a job in teaching or at a bank.)
Sure there are going to be times when that instinct breaks down, or when someone takes a photo without your permission and refuses to keep it private – and in those situations I’m a firm believer that Facebook et al have an obligation to act to defend a person’s reasonable assumption of privacy. But in almost every case where we hear someone griping about privacy online, it’s over something they have either willingly posted on a closed, but essentially public, network themselves – or has allowed one of their friends to post.
In other words, their problem is not that something ended up online, simply that they were unable to keep control of something they willingly shared with at least a portion of the world. And it’s that attitude that needs to change – from one of retroactive bleating about privacy to one of proactive filtering of what we choose to share in the first place.
Blaming Facebook’s flaky approach to privacy for the ills of the exhibitionist generation is just yelling at the stable door, long after the horse has bolted.