We live in a rapidly evolving time. It’s scary. We’re going from a time where we lived our lives in private to where we are increasingly living in public. What we did behind closed doors, what media we consumed, what conversations we had, who our friends were, what news articles we read and what we liked, was known only to us.
The only way companies and governments were able to find out this information about us was through huge expensive research initiatives where armies of college students were deployed to ask us what we thought and what did. It was our choice to give this information away or not.
But increasingly we’re giving away that information “for free” and far more of it than we’ve ever given away before. Why? In simplest terms we gain social capital from our over-sharing but it goes way beyond that.
Invasion Of Your Privacy With Consent
Every week there seems to be a new story about some app or social networking service that is being accused of violating your privacy. Facebook is almost always somewhere in the mix as they are the service that is most aggressively pushing the boundaries of our privacy. Over the weekend a new app called Girls Around Me sparked off the debate again. The app pulled Foursquare check-ins from public Facebook profiles to locate girls in your area. Creepy? Yes. In violation of any rules? Nope. But it was still pulled down. This app basically confirmed all the worst fears people have about geolocation.
Despite this, and possibly much worse, we will continue to give up our personal data. Not only will we continue to give up our personal data, we will gladly give up even more than we are today.
Personal Information Is The New Oil
You may remember sometime last year (seems like longer) that everyone was saying that your personal information was the new oil. That collectively our personal data would fuel a whole new economy. The analogy was heavily championed by Reputation.com CEO Michael Fertik. The World Economic Forum even released a study (PDF) which praised the social good which could be done with this data.
I had the opportunity to hear Fertik speak at Gnomedex on the topic. Fertik believes that our personal information is a currency we can use and that services will spring up that will broker our data for us to those companies which wish to use it. Unfortunately for Fertik, that information broker already exists and it’s called Facebook.
Why We Give Up Our Privacy
We all (those heavily involved in social media) understand intuitively that there are benefits that outweigh the risks involved in sharing our data. And when you get down to it, the use of information brokers is just too cumbersome and costly to use. Who’s going to pay for the service? Large data gathering companies aren’t going to pay for it because there’s more public data than there ever has been. Your data is a commodity. Sure it’s unique to you, but for the purposes of data gathering, your data isn’t special. So if someone was going to use a data broker, they would have to pay for it themselves. And I think we’ve already demonstrated we’re not going to do that.
We may not like it but we seem perfectly content to let Facebook manage our data for us.
The Future Is Transparent
But don’t despair. We are receiving plenty of benefit in trade for our data and we’re only going to get more. Right now we have unlimited use of World changing services like Facebook. Could you imagine going back to a pre-Facebook world? A World without Facebook would seem like post-apocalyptic fiction. And it’s only the beginning.
Eventually our personal data will take us into the post-social age, where our every experience is layered with social data. We will all rely on, or work from, the crowd and the only way that will be possible is if we have access to each others data. With access to that data we will know who to reach out to, who we want to work with and who we trust. Without ever seeing or even talking to that person.
We will inherently distrust people who don’t share their data, the same way we distrust incoming callers who block caller-ID.
I’m not saying it’s all going to be rosy and shiny. There will be casualties along the way. Some people will be taken advantage of. Some people will be physically harmed. This is no different from it is today and is the sad downside of living in a society. And some people will “drop out.” We’ll see some people become Digital Agoraphobics.
One Final Note
I’m not saying we should throw all privacy out the window and just abandon ourselves to the whim of corporations. We need to be smart about how we move forward because I believe most of the damage will be done not in the final state but on the path there. During the transition there will be an imbalance of data. Some people will use this imbalance to their advantage and that’s what we have to mitigate. Additionally I believe that if companies want to participate in this new transparent world, they themselves have to become more transparent.