Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

more on sharing and oversharing

Tim O’Reilly takes a line similar to that of Steven Johnson:

The essence of my argument is that there's enormous advantage for users in giving up some privacy online and that we need to be exploring the boundary conditions - asking ourselves when is it good for users, and when is it bad, to reveal their personal information. I'd rather have entrepreneurs making high-profile mistakes about those boundaries, and then correcting them, than silently avoiding controversy while quietly taking advantage of public ignorance of the subject, or avoiding a potentially contentious area of innovation because they are afraid of backlash. It's easy to say that this should always be the user's choice, but entrepreneurs from Steve Jobs to Mark Zuckerberg are in the business of discovering things that users don't already know that they will want, and sometimes we only find the right balance by pushing too far, and then recovering.

To his credit, O’Reilly goes on to say that Facebook isn't acting out of any commitment to the public good, and he endorses a recent Bill of Rights for Facebook users. But his approach troubles me in a number of ways.

First, he sees virtue only in “pushing the boundaries” in one direction, towards the reduction or elimination of privacy — but he never explains why that direction is the one that counts. Some of the people striving to create alternatives to Facebook are exploring the idea that tighter privacy controls are more generally desirable.

Second, O’Reilly talks about companies like Facebook “correcting” their invasions of user privacy and then “recovering” — but, as we learned from the Google Buzz fiasco, information doesn't go back in a bottle. You can stop sharing, but you can't unshare what’s already out there. Facebook may “correct,” but users can't “recover” privacy they’ve lost.

Finally, he’s failing to make an important distinction. It’s absolutely true that “entrepreneurs . . . are in the business of discovering things that users don't already know that they will want,” but historically they have discovered those “things” and then sold them to users. But what Google and Facebook have recently done is different: they have sold (or given away) a particular service and then altered it significantly without consulting or even warning users. Imagine getting up one morning and, as you’re leaving for work, discovering that your sports car has overnight been transformed into a minivan — there’s a note on the windshield from the car manufacturer saying that they know you’ll really enjoy all the features this new model has that the old one lacked. Would you say that the car company was being “entrepreneurial”?

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