February 27, 2013

Q&A with Bianca Bosker, Executive Technology Editor, The Huffington Post

Posted by: in North America

We spoke with Bianca Bosker when we were researching one of our 10 Trends for 2013, Going Private in Public: the notion that people are rebelling against a culture in which living publicly is the expectation, and coming up with ways to reclaim some privacy without giving up the benefits of social media. A graduate of Princeton University, Bosker is the executive technology editor of The Huffington Post. Her writing has also appeared in publications including The Wall Street JournalFast Company and the Far Eastern Economic Review. She has appeared on Nightline, Al Jazeera English, Viewpoint with Eliot Spitzer and HuffPost Live. She talked to us about what privacy means in 2013.

In a world that values living publicly by default, where does privacy fit in?

I think it’s an interesting premise that the world values living publicly by default. I think companies value people living their lives publicly by default. Facebook and Google make a great deal of money because we live our lives publicly.

I don’t think privacy has gone away. It’s just that we’re signing up to live our lives in places that are more public. It’s easier to be public, and privacy is becoming something that we have to do much more consciously.

How would you redefine the idea of privacy for this new era? Does it have to be an all-or-nothing proposition, in which things are public and everyone can see them or they’re private and no one can see them?

Privacy is something that we’re having to more actively guard. The sliver of our lives that can be private is getting smaller and smaller. We used to be able to assume that something would be private, and you certainly can’t do that anymore. I mean, look at what happened with Petraeus. In a heartbeat, something you think is private can become very, very public. But something that’s public certainly can’t become private.

Forgetting is natural and healthy for humans to do, but it’s essentially been built out of the Internet and social networking. What are the potential downfalls of relying on a communication system that publicly documents all our missteps, heroic acts and everything else?

There’s a sense that the past is always present and that it’s really shaping our interactions in the future. That’s always been true. We’ve never automatically forgotten everything that someone says, but when you can recall a conversation word for word, it becomes much harder to put aside the past. Now not only are we recording things in great detail, but we can recall them instantly. You don’t have to dig through a shoebox anymore. We can constantly see each other through the lens of our earlier actions and words.

We’re recording everything everyone says, but we’re not at a point yet where as a society we’re able to forgive someone for misspeaking. We all misspeak all the time. I think it will be interesting to see whether we collectively become more forgiving of each other’s mistakes.

The other potential outcome of this ever-remembering web is that we become more closed off and reticent about what we share. I know people who have left Facebook, or haven’t joined social networks specifically because they know that chances are good they’re going to say something dumb, and they don’t want it to be out there for everyone to see.

There’s a good side to it too, in the sense that having more data about what we do can make us better. Being able to look back at your emails to see that you canceled on someone nine times out of ten could have a good effect on your behavior.

There’s some danger in completely opting out of social networks, because people could still share anything they want about you and then you’re not there to reclaim your reputation. Have you seen ways that people are trying to mitigate this dilemma?

I certainly know a good number of people who have joined Facebook, have profiles, but don’t really touch them. Privacy is no longer something that you control for yourself. It’s increasingly something that anyone in your social network can put in peril. And how are people dealing with it? Well, part of how you deal with it is being really explicit and obnoxious about your boundaries. I mean, I’ve had people check in on Foursquare at my apartment and I’ve had to actively ask them not to do that.

Do you think people will start to codify a new privacy etiquette for the 21st century?

Yes, for sure. Social networks in some ways are no different from offline social situations. Facebook has everyone, so it’s closer to the school cafeteria or the living room with your parents than to the basement of a friend’s house when no one is there. And people behave very differently in those situations. We’ve had new rules of decorum that are cropping up, and there are certain elements of peer pressure that make people act correctly.

You also get to a point where, when something is transparently public like Twitter or Instagram, you get sharing that is very G-rated. People want to be sure that it doesn’t offend, it doesn’t embarrass and it won’t come back to haunt them. The number and quality of posts on my Facebook wall has plummeted since I was in college. When I graduated in 2008, Facebook was still mostly college friends, and there was a sense that you could post something a little risqué. But now with everyone having their bosses as friends, those conversations go back into a much more private one-to-one sphere. It’s also been a long time since I’ve been tagged in a photo. People have taken a lot of sharing that they used to do on social networks and moved it into back channels like Dropbox or via email.

What about the invasive ways companies are going so far into potential employees’ social media lives?

I think it will be really interesting to see what happens when this generation that’s grown up with social media is running for president or hiring each other as CEOs. Are they going to be more forgiving of an incriminating Facebook past? If you grew up on Facebook and you know how many awful photos you have of you drinking under 21, are you going to be more lenient toward other people? I can’t wait for our first real Facebook president who is going to have all these awful photos haunting them.

Have you heard of examples of people hacking the system?

There’s a real tension between wanting to partake in social media in some way but exercise control over it. That’s hard to do. I don’t think anyone has the perfect social media experience where they feel like they can be involved but also feel comfortable that nothing bad is going to happen to them.

I’ve heard of people creating multiple Facebook accounts. It’s become more common for people to preemptively ask each other not to tag them or not to share anything on Instagram. I’ve seen people creating fake Facebook names or Twitter accounts that are very generic and then not telling people about them. And then there are new apps like Snapchat, Wickr and BurnNote that let people send photos or messages that self-destruct.

What else are people doing to preserve some privacy?

Google Alerts are one way of seeing what people are saying about you. You can track your mentions on Twitter and set up Facebook so that you’re notified every time someone tries to tag you.

The other thing I like on Facebook is that you can control how your profile appears to different people. I accept friend requests from a lot of people, and I let them see a profile that’s very tightly controlled, so we’re still friends, and I’ve appeared friendly, but they don’t have full access to all my photos and posts. So in that way I think it’s possible to find a balance between social niceties and some real privacy.

But Facebook could undo that.

You’re right. We’ve learned a lesson that what we think is private can very quickly become public. The information that we think we’ve very carefully controlled isn’t totally in our control. We’ve seen enough changes to Facebook and Google’s privacy settings that people are more wary of what they share in the first place. We’re learning that private doesn’t always mean private, and to take that with a grain of salt.

What should brands do to help either navigate or mitigate our privacy dilemma?

That’s a good question. It’s been interesting to watch companies try to use privacy as a marketing point. Microsoft tries to create a lot of noise anytime there’s an issue with Google, and markets itself as a more private alternative.

But more broadly for brands, it’s tough because they need a lot of data, and that very often is at odds with privacy. People are sort of freaked out when they see an ad that’s a little too similar to them. But on the other hand, I think people are largely still not very aware of just how much companies already know about them and how much they’re targeting them.

I think the conversation about privacy really involves relationships. Broadcasting information to everyone can’t be confused with feeling close to everyone, even though we might be telling total strangers intimate details once reserved only for best friends. But just because I’m telling you something I might once have only told my best friend doesn’t mean I’m okay with you talking to me like I’m your best friend. That’s important for brands because, sure, you might know a good deal about me because I’m very public about something on Twitter and Facebook, but that doesn’t mean I’m comfortable with you. There’s a danger of presuming that you’re too buddy-buddy with someone.

Something else I’ve read is that transparency is great for companies but maybe not for people.

That’s a good way of putting it. Brands increasingly want to have a lot of conversations with us online. There’s a real tension, where Facebook tells brands that they can be our friends, but I don’t think a brand can be my friend. It’s a company, it’s a product, and I might use it, and I might like it, but I’m not particularly interested in its backstory. Nor do I want to tell it my deepest, darkest secrets.

And any birthday wish it might send is completely contrived because it’s a brand.

Right. Another interesting part about privacy is to what extent the stuff we’re sharing is actually intimate, and to what extent we’re all just selling to each other. Given that we know that our information lasts forever, it can be used against us, it can make us lose our job, are we sharing things that are really personal, or are we just sharing the things that we want to advertise about ourselves? We’re in this place where we’re all pitching each other on our best sells, or we’re just updating with the great articles we’ve written or the beautiful pictures of our wedding where we look our very, very best.

Any parting thoughts?

I think a lot of people assume that teens don’t care at all about privacy, but I think that they’re a lot savvier than people give them credit for. Young people get labeled as the oversharing generation, but they understand the implications of sharing information. That doesn’t mean they always get it right, but I think they’re aware of the benefits of social media, but absolutely aware of the risk of sharing too much and making use of the tools available to protect their privacy. They are defriending people. They are asking people to take down photos of them. They’re moving conversations off of mainstream sites into nooks and crannies of the Web where they might have more anonymity. Adults shouldn’t confuse their own confusion with social media with a sense that teens don’t care at all about boundaries or privacy.

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