Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Alienation vs. Invasions of Privacy

So, today's story that Facebook is going to replicate the Foursquare check-in model is as good a leaping-off point as any for a reflection that Foursquare has been leading me to.

Do you remember when we were told our technology was going to alienate us? Visions of gawky teenagers sitting at home playing SNES instead of playing with the neighborhood boys, or whatnot? At the time, modems were 14.4k (or, if you were flush with cash, 28.8k or 56k) and internet was apparently accessible in CD form.

Now, with the advent of social networking -- every product and website is trying to become "social" even if it makes no fucking sense whatsoever -- the entire paradigm of the internet has become connection.

So now the twin luddite arguments are thus:
  • We can never disconnect
  • We have given up our privacy
The second one, particularly, sticks out to me. And I realized that privacy and alienation are really along the same spectrum. In other words, the hungry search for connection is a drive to make life public, and the attempt to protect one's privacy is a drive towards isolation.

Neither of these things are inherently bad. On the balance, I think the internet skews a lot more strongly towards the drive to make life public, simply because it has incredible powers of disseminating information. Therefore, we do need to push to work within systems that give us control of that balance.

That's why, although I'm not in the "GET OFF FACEBOOK!" crowd, I am watching with interest to see how Diaspora, the open-source distributed (that is, not centralized) Facebook alternative evolves. However, I'm sure that Diaspora is going to keep struggling with exactly the same problem. Social networking is built on the model of disseminating personal information; having control is fine, but as Facebook shows, a lot of privacy invasions are really user errors, not network problems.

Foursquare demonstrates cleanly why we share our personal information. We are willing to give away our GPS coordinates and information about what venues we go to, if it increases the odds that we're going to see people we like. We do an upside/downside calculation, and we say: it would be cool if someone else dropped by. Or we don't, and then we don't use Foursquare.