A social balancing act

I’ve been musing on the nature of social networking sites again… no big surprise, nary a week goes by for me where the delicate balancing act of this new paradigm doesn’t come into my conversations.  This time it was a conversation with a friend who actually makes his living in the social networking space.  We were both early adopters of Web 2.0 and continue to be pretty enthusiastic about its possibilities.  In fact, we probably would not have met had it not been for one such site.

That being said, both of us are pretty privacy conscious.  We’ve been conscious from the outset that “the Internet is forever” and that content has a way of wandering outside its origin.  That picture you post today is now pretty well out of your control, and unlikely to stay where you put it – people can easily copy it and post it elsewhere, no matter the protection in place.

Some of our mutual friends have had to deal with the reality of their web-presence, moving from college to the “real world”.  Yes, that info you posted when you were a young’un can come to bite you in the hindquarters when it comes time to move your life into the professional realm.  If it’s not something you would want to have to explain to your grandma, just don’t post it, m’kay?

I also recently overheard a girl who had worked for the Peace Corps talking about how officials in D.C. had contacted her about information she’d posted on her (then public) blog which they found objectionable.  She was quite shocked that anyone outside her meat-space social circle would be reading her blog.  When she was told by the officials what could be done with the information she was sharing, the girl was absolutely dumbstruck.  It’s tempting to think we’re alone in this vast web-o-sphere, but it’s not analogous to the analog world – India is equally as close as Indiana.

There seems to me to be a few basic issues:

  1. The pace of change has way outpaced our ability to properly appreciate their consequences.
  2. There has not been a culture of sites offering transparency, but of pushing boundaries until people start screaming.
  3. Users have had a “head in the sand” attitude about all things technology:  Until it’s been proven that something is harmful, they’ll use it blindly.

It strikes me that the best thing for the future of social networking is to adopt a “User Bill of Rights” like the one outlined by this San Francisco Chronicle article.

1. Honesty: Tell the truth. Don’t make our information public against our will and call it “giving users more control.” Call things what they are.

2. Accountability: Keep your word. Honor the deals you make and the expectations they create. If a network asks users to log in, users expect that it’s private. Don’t get us to populate your network based on one expectation of privacy, and then change the rules once we’ve connected with 600 friends.

3. Control: Let us decide what to do with our data. Get our permission before you make any changes that make our information less private. We should not have data cross-transmitted to other services without our knowledge. We should always be asked to opt in before a change, rather than being told we have the right to opt out after a change is unilaterally imposed.

4. Transparency: We deserve to know what information is being disclosed and to whom. When there has been a glitch or a leak that involves our information, make sure we know about it.

5. Freedom of movement: If we want to leave your network, let us. If we want to take our data with us, let us do that, too. This will encourage competition through innovation and service, instead of hostage-taking. If we want to delete our data, let us. It’s our data.

6. Simple settings: If we want to change something, let us. Use intuitive, standard language. Put settings in logical places. Give us a “maximize privacy settings” button, a and a “delete my account” button.

7. Be treated as a community, not a data set: We join communities because we like them, not “like” them. Advertise to your community if you want. But don’t sell our data out from under us.

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