Privacy Matters: How Are We Using Social Media?

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Fast Company recently published an article in which writer Farhad Manjoo argues that online privacy on services such as Facebook, Twitter and Google is not only elusive, but doesn’t even matter. The only thing that matters is that these new media behemoths provide a semblance of control with their privacy settings, and users will continue to post, tweet and share items across these services with little thought to who sees what.

Manjoo makes a compelling argument. Why else do people geotag photos on Flickr, share their locations via emerging mobile applications, such as FourSquare, or, dare I say, post anything online?

The topic is timely as well, given Google’s self-inflicted PR disaster when it opted in all of its Gmail users to Buzz, a Twitter-like service that alerted users to the goings on of their contacts. Or there’s the more recent uproar raised by four senators over Facebook’s default privacy settings.

A Third Way: Bringing in Accountability

I agree with Manjoo’s position. Users care much more about being in control (or at least the feeling of control) over what they post and who will see it than they do about keeping what they share private, per se.

But I disagree with his conclusion. I don’t think all users are comfortable with “letting the world peer deeper and deeper into our lives,” as a general statement.

There are a lot of people who, in my humble opinion, accept that whatever they post online may reach their boss, their mom or their aunt Mildred, and have begun to think through their tweets, tags and wall posts.

Gasp.

I know, I know – what a naive thought, right? Examples abound of people posting embarrassing, career-threatening information online, right? But increasingly, those are the exceptions and not the rule. And here’s why:

Google, Twitter and, particularly, Facebook bring accountability to the web in a way people could not have imagined 10 years ago.

Do you remember that mid 90’s internet cartoon, the one that depicted a dog sitting at a computer, saying “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog“?

Or do you at least remember the days before “social media” when email, instant messenger and anonymous chat rooms were the places average web users spent most of their time socializing online?

Facebook, I might argue, was one of the earliest online communication platforms where people were who they said they were. Initially, that might be because its early users were college students who felt comfortable posting personal information amongst peers. But now, as Facebook’s user base has ballooned to the size of the U.S. population, and your mother is as likely to comment on your status update as your friends, users have not suddenly retreated behind anonymity and people (for the most part) are who they say they are.

With this growth of accountability comes a necessary second thought before users hit the submit button. As Manjoo says, it doesn’t mean they’ll stop hitting submit, but I’d argue that it does mean they’ll define what parts of their lives the Internet “peers into.”

What are your thoughts? Have a great Facebook faux pas to share?