I was watching Mark Suster and Tom McInerney on This Week in Venture Capital mainly for fun, though Tom is a good friend. If you have not watched it you should as it is highly engaging. Well into the discussion Tom and Mark delve into privacy and Tom mentions that many teens have moved to having more than one Facebook account. This was the same week that Hashable re-tooled their privacy settings, moving from a very open public followship model to an 'Inner Circle' model. All of this got me to thinking further about privacy in the online world.
For many years people would designate themselves on the web using a pseudonym such as firstname.lastname@example.org. It was not until Facebook, LinkedIn and the like coerced users to register using their real name that the social network revolution really started to matter. Since then people have be educated to be online using their real name. This has been important for many reasons: (1) it allows social networks to function; (2) it builds trust and improves overall behavior - visit a comment stream that forces real names vs. one that does not and you will see a huge difference in civility and relevance/quality of discourse; (3) it allows algorithmic psyco-analytical companies to flourish, such as Klout, that are a benefit to consumer in many ways; (4) it enables information to find people via crowd-soiurced trusted networks (Okay I simply should have said Twitter!) rather than have to search for it, which is bad news for Google.
But, but privacy gets in the way, or at least defines the usage of the service. Twitter is clear: it is open, there is no privacy (even DM's can be read by 3rd parties from their API's), it does not pretend to be private and so it is like walking up to the town square, picking up a soapbox and shouting. There is no pretense that something tweeted is private. Facebook pretends: it wants you to think that what you say/share/do is private to you and your intimate circle of 'friends', but it is not; and even if you shut down most of your privacy settings you are dependent, sometimes, on what privacy settings your friend's have. People want to share and so they are resorting to pseudonyms on Facebook which, well, reduces some of the utility highlighted above. Hashable has moved from defaulting all people checkin's from being public (or private) to being shared with your Inner Circle (or private). This, for me, massively increases the utility and going forward all the CEO's of my portfolio companies and my employees will be in my Inner Circle - we will share with each other our meetings and what we are getting up to and I am sure there will be many occasions where this serendipitous sharing will lead to new ideas, new connections and new business. Hashable will add real utility from getting privacy right. Others will be shut out, but that is fine, this information was not easily shareable before. This seems to me to be the optimum level of privacy for me to get the most out of Hashable. I am sure it will evolve, but I like this latest iteration.
Social privacy should mimic actual privacy, and so be different for different services. In the real world you compartmentalize what you know/think and who you share it with. We all have a private self that we keep, basically, to ourselves. Then there is a public self that we are willing to share with everyone - though some people have multiple public persona that they like to keep separate, e.g. fraudsters and bigamists. Then there is everything in-between: some people have just one setting for friends and family, and others have different settings for different groups that don't intermix e.g. their guy friends, or work colleagues. The online world has to mimic this, and so a service either has to address just one of these privacy groups, of be uber-flexible if it wants to cover more than one. It is clear that I think Facebook is attempting and failing to do this.
Services will continue to evolve and getting social privacy right is essential for them to increase their utility to us as people and them for engagement.