Zuckerberg's Remarks Aren't Surprising, Nor New, Nor True

There’s been quite a dust-up regarding Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s recent proclamation that social norms on privacy have changed, and that Facebook, god bless ‘em, are merely reacting to these shifting norms.

Lots has already been said about Zuckerberg’s remarks, so I’m only going to add three thoughts to the conversation: What Zuckerberg said isn’t surprising, it isn’t new, and it isn’t true.

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That Zuckerberg believes social norms on privacy have changed comes as no surprise because he has to believe — and proclaim — that sentiment. His entire philosophy of information centers on the fundamental belief that information wants to be shared, and that the primary goal of Facebook has been to encourage people to overcome the “hurdle” of wanting to preserve some privacy online.

Clearly, this is the core of Facebook’s business model, and the foundation of my Laws of Social Networking: Promote the open flow of personal information allows maximum profitability. Thus, if Zuckerberg wants his Facebook project to succeed, he has to declare that social norms are encouraging people to overcome these hurdles and post more information online. He needs people to feel like they’re just following larger social trends when they select “everyone” on the Transition Tool and are forced to accept Facebook’s recent privacy upgrade downgrade.

He makes these kinds of statements often, and, honestly, we shouldn’t be surprised when he does.

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We also shouldn’t be surprised at Zuckerberg’s statements because they aren’t new. Over a decade go, Sun’s Scott McNealy famously stated “You have zero privacy…get over it.” And we’ve heard this refrain time and time again as the Internet — and now social media — became more dominant in our daily lives.

In fact these kinds of statements are so predictable that they’ve become banal, and reveal a lack of depth of understanding of what privacy really means — and how it persists — in our contemporary information sphere. Thus…

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…What Zuckerberg says simply isn’t accurate.

In his remarks he correlates the rise of blogging with shifting social norms about privacy online. It doesn’t take a degree from Harvard to recognize that this is an invalid comparison; a logical fallacy. Certainly thousands — perhaps millions — of people blog. Some blog about news topics; some blog about food; some blog about celebrities; some blog about sex; some blog about their personal lives. Some blog using their real name; some blog anonymously. But the existence of blogging doesn’t mean that suddenly society feels differently about sharing personal information online. While I’d be a fool not to recognize that there have been changes in who, how and how much some people share online, this isn’t a result of blogging, per se.

Even if we accept that there has been some changes in how people share information online, Zuckerberg claims that Facebook is merely following these supposedly shifting norms. Such a sentiment clearly ignores the role Facebook itself is playing in creating — no, forcing — these shifts. Facebook regularly thrusts new “features” on its millions of users: forcing our status updates into news feeds, injecting our actions into advertisements on Beacon, suddenly making certain personal information permanently “publicly available” without any ability for users to limit or control access. These actions force people to share information in new ways, and when 300 million Facebook users are suddenly forced to share their friends list with the word, perhaps it does look like social norms are changing. But, in reality, it is Zuckerberg pushing the buttons.

Finally, these kinds of blanket statements that “privacy is over” or “no one cares about privacy any more” are talking about privacy in the wrong way: they’re easy to proclaim, which is why people have been saying it for years, but, as shown below, they just don’t ring true. For a long time we haven’t lived in purely public or private spheres, with separate public and privacy information. We live in numerous contexts, each with their own informational norms. Privacy means something different when we’re in the doctor’s office compared to in the classroom compared to on a social networking website. Further, there have been numerous research studies indicating that users of SNS remain concerned about who gets access to their information, how it is used, and so on. There have been numerous surveys showing that younger people still care about their privacy within particular contexts.

Certainly, many people post considerable amount of information on Facebook to share with friends, but it is wrong to declare it is necessarily evidence of some kind of large-scale shift in social norms.

Are things changing? Sure. Is privacy over? Not a chance.

::: UPDATE :::

I shared similar thoughts with Adam Dickter from News Factor, who posted this story: “Zuckerberg’s Comments Unleash Firestorm of Dissent”:

Michael Zimmer, an assistant professor in the school of information studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and an associate at the Center for Information Policy Research who has done extensive research on social media, said Zuckerberg’s comments seemed calculated to make users and advertisers feel more at ease with sharing online.

“That’s the world he wants, so he makes statements to make it seem as if it is true,” Zimmer said. “Social-network  sites need users to share information, and any attempts to limit that sharing is contrary to SNS business models.”

So while increasing privacy controls are added, Zimmer said, “they typically are insufficient, and rhetoric like Zuckerberg’s is just another version of this: Tell people that no one cares about privacy anymore, and then more people will think it’s OK to share their information.”

Zimmer took issue with Zuckerberg’s assertion that “blogging has taken off in a huge way” as proof of a shift in social norms. “The fact that some people choose to blog about some aspect of their lives — and most aren’t even about one’s personal life — is in no way related to whether people are more willing to share details with networks of friends on social-networking sites. The two spheres are completely different; thus the correlation is simply invalid.”

[image by Carlo Nicora]

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