You may have heard this already, but this social networking thing is starting to get popular. It’s fundamentally altering the way we conduct our daily lives and that has lots of people coming unhinged. Daily shrieks on my Facebook wall warn of a new plan from the modern day Trilateral Commission(Facebook, Google, and Foursquare) to turn us into strung out, ad-clicking junkies so they can cut off our heads and mount them on pikes. News reporters who wouldn’t know the difference between a browser cookie and an Oreo cookie write terrifying stories about web sites stealing deep, dark, private secrets: like the URL for your Facebook profile that is already indexed by Google.
But I had to write this post after reading the latest prediction of the privacy apocalypse from the Intelligentsia. In a February Wired Magazine article titled “Your Life Torn Open,” Andrew Keen wails that we are being led down a primrose path to Hell with these social networking sites. Fear mongering has a long and glorious history – especially in journalism and politics – because it’s such a powerful emotion. If Gordon Gecko were a journalist instead of a wall street banker he would have said, “Fear, for lack of a better word, is good.”
While being concerned about your privacy is very important, articles like Keen’s focus the attention in the wrong place, in my opinion. In an effort to warn people about an impending doom, he’s inadvertently doing more harm than good. His article peddles three untruths that I see commonly thrown around and I will take exception to them now.
#1 – Social Networking is Narcissistic
In my opinion, this is the laziest, most gratuitous slap anyone can take at social networking. Almost invariably, they cite Tweets about what someone had for lunch or wall updates about their pet did this morning. Since social networking begins with us talking about ourselves, it’s really easy (too easy) to make quips about it being narcissistic. But it’s also demonstrably false.
If social networking were truly narcissistic, then NOBODY WOULD FOLLOW ANYONE BUT THEMSELVES. And that would pretty much defeat the whole purpose of a social network, wouldn’t it? The very fact that someone has Facebook friends or Twitter followers annihilates the argument. I follow other people because I either learn something from time to time, or am entertained by that person, or want to keep my relationship with them warm by seeing what they’re doing. I’m interested.
There are billions of people on this planet who could not possibly care less about what I have to say. From their perspective, I’m obviously self-absorbed for writing about stuff they don’t care about. But I’m not talking to them. I’m talking to few hundred or thousand who do care. I’m talking to you. Does that make me a narcissist?
Now, I have no doubt there are true narcissists in social networks, but that’s because they are already narcissists and would be whether Facebook existed or not.
#2 – We Aren’t Naturally Social Beings
This line in Keen’s story made burst out loud with incredulity. This is absolutely demonstrably false. There have been countless experiments that illustrate the fact that much of our irrational behaviors are specifically geared toward social acceptance and group dynamics. Fear of public speaking is an example. We developed a fear of standing out from a crowd as a survival mechanism because there’s safety in numbers. Cognitive researchers have shown that our decision process is highly dependent on and easily swayed by others’ opinions. This helps promote harmony in small groups so that consensus can be reached on important decisions.
Keen opines that “human happiness is really about being left alone.” Really? Do I really even need to make an argument against that? Everybody likes some alone time now and then, obviously. But for my entire adult life I’ve heard about how our social fabric is being torn apart by people moving out of cities and into solitary lives in suburbia.
Now all of a sudden we’re all Greta Garbo? Here’s a free tip if you’re feeling too “social” – shut down your laptop and turn off your phone for a few hours. Problem solved!
#3 – Social Graphs Are Evil
Whereas the first two points I’ve made are demonstrable facts, this one is a little more of an opinion and personal preference. However, I feel like the whole paranoia over privacy settings gets a bit hysterical sometimes. First of all, you’re in complete control over what data you want to share and what data you want to keep private. Yes, reasonable people can argue about whether or not it could be more user friendly but the capability is there.
Second, we’re not talking about sharing social security numbers and credit card details. We’re talking about the brand of car you drive, your favorite songs and television shows, and news articles you’ve read. Lots of people think it’s “creepy” that this information can be used to target advertisements to us when log into Facebook or visit a newspaper website. I prefer to think of it as spam-blocking. I’m all in favor of giving these websites information that lets them improve the ads I see and offers I receive so that it’s more relevant to me.
Let’s Be Smart
OK, please don’t waste our time by mis-characterizing my point: I am not saying you should make everything public. I am not saying there’s no such thing as identity theft. I am saying that you should be concerned about the important things, like strong passwords and recognizing a phishing attack when you see one. Those are much, much more important than preventing Facebook from telling someone your favorite artist is Justin Bieber.
Well, maybe you do want to keep that one private.
Let me know what you think about privacy and targeted ads. I think there are more dangerous things to worry about but maybe I’m missing something.