Privacy is a Zombie: Quasi-Public Intimacy and Facebook

There has been a flurry of discussion regarding Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s proclamation that sharing has become a common norm, and presumably, that is why Facebook is now forcing you to share with the whole wide world your list of friends, your profile picture, current city and pages which you are a fan of, among other information. Zuckerman said:

“People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time. We view it as our role in the system to constantly be innovating and be updating what our system is to reflect what the current social norms are.”

Facebook, all of Facebook, is a quasi-public sphere. The issue is that it is also an intimate sphere. This shuffles the traditional equation of private=intimate and public=civic. We now have intimate which is inherently quasi-public.

As Nancy Baym pointed out on Twitter, Facebook is a significant player in disrupting social norms so this claim to be simply following the curve is not very convincing. Facebook is, as usual, leading, and shaping, the norms.

That said, I think the focus on privacy controls –and lack thereof– has become really inadequate to explain what’s going on. Clearly, the word now hides at least as much as it illuminates. When we talk about a profile being private, we mean a profile visible “only to friends” which often number in the hundreds! (Some studies found 150 to be a rough average).  Since when has it become normal to refer to something visible to hundreds of people as private? Counting friends of friends, the potential immediate audience is tens of thousands. Where is the private?

Thus, Facebook, all of Facebook, is a quasi-public sphere. The issue is that it is also an intimate sphere. This shuffles the traditional equation of private=intimate and public=civic. We now have intimate which is inherently quasi-public. Millions of people are now living out at least portions of their intimate lives in a quasi-public setting. Anyone who’s witnessed a Facebook break-up knows what I’m talking about.  This isn’t just a shift in the private/public boundary; this is a fundamental rerrangement of both spheres.

One might be tempted to say, well, people should just stop using Facebook. It’s just an application, stay off it, and that’s that. While not untrue at face value, this approach misses the point about online sociality; i.e. it is sociality. Being social is among the most profound human needs. There is a reason solitary confinement is the most severe punishment, short of killing them, that is legally imposed upon people.

Facebook is, at the moment, a sine qua non of college existence and it has rapidly spread to other cohorts. Studies find its prevalence to be around ninety percent among college populations. Being on Facebook is the norm. Not being on Facebook is an event. It’s a statement.  I used to ask students in my classes which ones were on Facebook; now I ask which ones are not. Lately, only a few, rare, hands go up. Last year, two of the refuseniks were sitting close to each other. Upon noticing each other’s raised, somewhat timid hands, they broke into wide grins and gave each other high-fives. They had broken a strong norm, and like all young people who break strong norms, they were proud, smug and very happy to demonstrate their non-conformity. Of course, they could have found each other much quicker if there was an online social network for non-conformists, but, then, hey, … Well, you see the point.

Wagging our fingers at young ‘uns and telling them to simply not use Facebook, and thus withdraw from an important portion of the social sphere will work as well as telling people how, back in the day, we used to study by the flickering candle light / walk to school in foot-deep snow / do the laundry at the river / always obey our parents / fill in your Calvinist character building exercise.

It may not always be via Facebook, but online sociality is here to stay.  High levels of disclosure is what makes the site attractive to many users in the first place because disclosure and visibility is inherent to the high social value. Facebook is to the 21st century what the well was to the traditional village. We gather around it to participate in the life of the community. Being seen is the point; thus there is a lot to see. One problem is the Internet flattens space so the well is now the world. The other problem is that this is a corporate-owned environment, and, as we can see that means the motive driving the site is not just how to best promote functional and satisfying sociality.

In my research, I found that FB users disclose a lot, regardless of their privacy concerns. That’s because that’s how norms operate; that’s the first law of sociology (if there are laws in sociology). Social norms are outside of us, and coercive over us. Once in a social sphere, we behave according to its customs; once on Facebook we disclose a lot even if we say we are concerned about privacy. We are back to the social relations of a village, where everyone knows each other’s business, but this village is indeed global, hyper, always-on, and always remembers.

So, that is how privacy dies, but privacy is more than dead. Limiting visibility of intimate interactions to only hundreds of friends, or perhaps tens of thousands of friends of friends, on Facebook rather than a few billion on Google is now called “private.” And for some types of information, even that is not necessarily an option anymore.

Privacy is more than dead. Privacy is a zombie. And no doubt this will have profound consequences.

5 thoughts on “Privacy is a Zombie: Quasi-Public Intimacy and Facebook

  1. Thomas E Moore

    Interesting stuff. It’s also a concern that social networks may mingle private and professional life, though there are also more business oriented sites like LinkedIn and Plaxo. So one could in principle maintain a separate professional presence. But facebook also allows friends to be grouped into lists, one of which could be “professional” or similar. And personal information can be screened from that list of friends. So it is possible in principle to maintain multiple groups and to have a somewhat separate facebook life with each of them. But as you say that isn’t the default, and not many people are interested or concerned enough to worry about this until it bites them.

    Another interesting site is, which allows anyone to set up a social network for a specific interest group. The thousands of interest groups are not linked by an overarching all inclusive social network as is the case with facebook, but of course facebook can be used for that function, as desired. This offers a nice way to be intimate with a common interest group, analogous to belonging to a church or a club, except that it can have worldwide membership.

    Someone will make a living out of organizing all this in a such a way that people can participate naturally in all manner of groups and organizations, while having a public identity that does not overexpose their private lives except where it is intended. And it will do it naturally and without exploitation for commercial gain. Otherwise, it will in the long run be commercially non-viable. Or at least that is my optimistic take on this.

  2. Daniel

    Hi there,

    I think this is a well thought-out article, and I would recommend you take the time to search for an essay entitled ‘Public Intimacy and the New Face (Book) of Surveillance: The Role of Social Media in Shaping Contemporary Dataveillance’. This essay will no doubt help in furthering your understanding of all the causal factors that are involved in social networking, datamining, surveillance and the like.

    The essay is included in the hefty 2409 page plus book ‘Social Computing: Concepts, Methodologies, Tools, and Application’. You could contact me by e-mail for the purpose of further inquiry.

    Note: just to preface, this is not spam or a troll, and I am not personally tied to the document/book/essay in any way – just saw an insightful blog post and I just want to point the author to a good source to read that is related to the subject..

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  4. Vickie

    No, sorry, I don’t buy this article. The renunciation of privacy is a choice, an opportunity if you like, it is not a norm. It is only a norm for those who don’t differently, namely the very young who have grown up with it. There are good reasons for privacy, and peoples right to decide what they reveal about themselves should never be compromised by intermediary forums like facebook. Get outside and enjoy meeting people in real life – there’s more to them than their fb profile… for good and for bad!

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