The Privacy Virus

I’m very happy to report that Facebook and Philosophy, a new book in Open Court’s extensive Popular Culture and Phliosophy series, has just published. My essay “The Privacy Virus” is the first chapter, and thanks to the publisher’s permission, it’s part of the free preview available on the book’s Amazon page. The essential ideas should be familiar from Saving Facebook, but the presentation is much snappier. The book as a whole was ably edited by Dylan Wittkower and includes essays from incisive thinkers like Ian Bogost and Trebor Scholz. Read it and find out why danah boyd said, “This book is a must-read for anyone who doubts the social importance of Facebook (and a sheer delight for those obsessed with updating their status).”

Here are the first few paragraphs of “The Privacy Virus”:

How many times have you heard someone (probably someone over forty) say, “Kids these days don’t care about privacy”? Facebook is their Exhibit A: over four hundred million users and growing, telling the world all sorts of scandalously personal details. And it’s not just keg stands, either. There are things federal law considers so private it’s illegal to ask you about them in a job interview. Age. Sex. Birthplace. Religion. They’re all questions on the first page of the Facebook profile form. Yea, verily, privacy is dead and the kids these days killed it.

It’s a neat theory, except for one inconvenient detail: the actual behavior of Facebook users. If “privacy” is on the list of words nobody uses any more, Facebook users didn’t get the memo. College students spend the wee hours of weekend nights untagging photos of themselves on Facebook, removing the evidence of their drunken revels earlier in the evening. A “Facebook stalker” is a creep, not a contradiction in terms.

In fact, as you look closer and closer, the idea that Facebook is privacy’s tombstone becomes stranger and stranger. If over four hundred million users don’t care about privacy, why are they using a site that allows them to reject friend requests? If they wanted to broadcast every last detail about their lives to everyone everywhere, why don’t you ever see credit card numbers on Facebook profiles? And why did hundreds of thousands of users sign petitions protesting Facebook’s decision to introduce real-time news feeds? For people who allegedly don’t care about privacy, Facebook users sure spend a lot of time worrying about it.