A couple of months back, Facebook changed their default settings so that wall posts (those status messages everyone creates) would be open to the public. Then facebook took everybody through a wizard asking that they take on the new defaults.
Recently, in an interview with Michael Arrington, Mark Zuckerberg started explaining why he made the changes. He says that the world is becoming more open and young people are more comfortable sharing more of their life online. If he had to start facebook again, he would default all wall posts to open.
The utility of facebook, as it was worked previously, was that it helped you remain connected to the people who were important to you. In a sea of information, facebook enabled you to maintain private relationships with your true circle of friends.
In Zuckerberg’s new world, there is little difference between whether your are friend with a person are not. Either way, they can read your daily thoughts. He devalues the importance of relationships to individuals and it shows a lack of respect for the individual.
Having a set of close private relationships permits people to hide the complexity of their lives from the rest of the world. We keep some people closer than others so that we stay competitive with our fellow human beings, so that we can present an abstracted version of ourself that lacks all the nitty gritty detail that would be overwhelming.
For many of the same reasons that facebook, as a company, does not divulge every thought, every half-baked plan, and the notes taken at internal meetings, human beings have a legitimate interest in privacy.
Zuckerberg claims that encouraging everyone to share more and more widely will make the world a more empathetic place. I don’t see there being any strong barriers today to people sharing their every thought if they so desire. Further, I can use information on a person’s inner state of mind for good or evil. The information does not care. Hence, empathy may not result. Maybe marketers want to pray on a person when they are down and offer them products that play on their insecurities. Does that make the world a better place? Does it make the world a better place that a potential employer can find out details of your family and relationship situation before hiring you, basing their hiring decisions on their value judgments about your private life?
Friends in their 40s come to me and ask whether they should try facebook. They express concerns over privacy. I used to tell them facebook was a very private place, a place where you information was locked down by default unless you chose to share it. But now, I have to warn them they they need to read the fine print because facebook wants the world to be more empathetic.
The question is, does Zuckerberg really believe the stuff he is currently saying or are there other pressures? Is he concerned that he can’t expose the facebook data to search, google style? Is he trying to stay ahead of twitter, which defaults information to public and does not require reciprocal relationships? Or is he just collapsing under the enormous weight of his personal success and the success of facebook? It can’t be easy to run a company where 300MM people have an opinion.
For some good background reading on the topic, read
Marshall Kirkpatrick’s ReadWriteWeb piece where he argues that rather then reflecting reality and trends, Zuckerberg is trying to influence those trends. Kirkpatrick also wrote a follow-on piece arguing that Zuckerberg is fundamentally wrong about the need for consumer privacy.