Tag Archives: quasi-public

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.