SxSWi: Is Privacy Dead, or Just Very Confused?

I attended this session because : danah boyd (one of my heroes) and Judith Donath of MIT Media Lab and Harvard’s Berkman Center (whom I happen to know personally) were speaking.

Also on the panel (and interesting in their own right):

  • Siva Vaidyanathan (author of the forthcoming “The Googleization of Everything”), who said (among other things) that privacy is not the opposite of publicity. Privacy is not a substance. It means different things in different contexts.
  • Alice Marwick, doing her dissertation on the Effect of Social Media on Social Status

What follows is a transcription of my notes, with [my own thoughts and comments].

CEOs these days expect their staff to be familiar with social technology. [Yay! I can haz job!]

There is social value to online relationships – people get real emotional support online.

But the information we put online is valuable to marketers.

[D here: So what? I just wish they’d make it valuable to me. Personally, I would be happy to see advertising that I’m actually interested in.

Take car advertising. How often does any of us buy a car? Yet it seems that every other ad on TV or at the movies is for a car. I’d like to know which is larger: the number of cars sold in the US each year, or the number of car ads shown? For most people, buying a car is a relatively rare event. Much of that advertising must be a waste of car companies’ money, and it’s certainly a waste of my time and attention, which I resent.

I was intensely interested in information about cars for a few weeks last summer, and again this March when I was buying a first car for my daughter. For myself, I ended up leasing a Toyota Rav4. I knew I liked this car because I had driven it as a rental for several weeks, but I didn’t feel comfortable with the sticker price. Then I discovered (on the Toyota website) a great lease deal that I qualified for, so I was able to get my dream car. I only test-drove one other (a used Hyundai SUV). No doubt the fact that the Rav4 was available as a rental at that time and place was part of a marketing effort – in my case, a very effective one.

For Ross, I did a lot more research, entirely online, for a good “starter” car that would last a while. She drove only one model – the Honda Fit – and that’s what she now owns (or rather, what the bank owns and I’m now paying for). A key selling point was Consumer Reports’ safety rating on this model (a big concern for me as the mother of a new driver).

If I’ve ever noticed either of these cars advertised in print or media, I don’t remember it. I do remember examples of advertising that had a negative impact on me, e.g. the painfully obvious product placement of Lexus in Desperate Housewives and Fiat in Montalbano.

So all the money spent showing me car ads was wasted. As Judith Donath said, there should be rewards for accurate targeting. In fact, there would be: I would buy!]

Judith Donath is interested in visualization of online identity/history.

Is online identity meaningful? You have different public faces for different spheres. We try to maintain control of our various public personas, but the web is causing the collapse of personalities.

[Which is to say: It’s hard to be one kind of person in your private life and a very different kind of person in your professional life, if much of both is viewable online. Coincidentally, a woman at another session I attended described trying to juggle two identities in Second Life. She said: “I’m trying to live two lives. And it’s killing me!”

I guess I’ve been lucky that I’ve always been myself, online and off. ]

It’s hard to know how others see you. We need technology to show us a mirror of the trails we have left behind (an area of research interest for Judith right now).

SV: There was a movement towards privacy in the mid-70s which resulted in current laws, e.g., no branch of government can share information about you with any other branch.

danah boyd: Young people see privacy differently. They do not see their homes as private spaces because they do not have control there – their parents can invade their rooms at any time.

Young people are also very aware of the role of power imbalances in privacy, and they find ways to trick the system.

“Because she puts so many things online, people think that’s all that’s going on.” [Now there’s a topic I could write reams on. But not today.]

SV: personal information is a currency.

JD: Time is also a context.

Discussion on health insurance, privacy and employability [ a topic I’ve written about myself].

Privacy and personal presentations of the self:

Privacy is a historically recent concept. People used to live in small tribes/communities in which everyone knew everyone else’s business.

[Me again: If you’ve ever lived in a small town, you know exactly what this is like.

It seems to me that the solution is simply not to do anything that you would be ashamed to have held up to public scrutiny. Obviously, this requires a society in which very little is grounds for shame. And this may be exactly what is happening in America. As Judith said: “We are creating what may be the most open and accepting society [in history] because we can see so much [online] about people’s divergent behaviors.”

The film “Milk” portrays how (some) young gay people living in middle America in the 1970s saw Harvey Milk – an openly gay man – on the news, and realized that they could go and be themselves in larger cities that had gay communities. For that to happen, Milk had to make enough of a stir to appear in the national news, and perhaps he died for it. Nowadays, all sorts of “differences” can be researched online, and anyone can find kindred spirits and support. (Yes, there are some cases in which this is worrying.)]

JD: In a society of millions of people trying to keep up with what their norms are, that’s the function of celebrity: to give us a basis for comparison/discussion. [D: I find this idea frightening. Paris Hilton and Britney Spears as social norms?]

We want people to pay attention to us. What is the value of that?

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