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After Snowden and the Age of the Overshare, Startups and Citizens Find the Value of Privacy

Rob Walker
Tech Columnist
February 5, 2014
After Snowden and the Age of the Overshare, Startups and Citizens Find the Value of Privacy

A few years ago, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg argued that faking your online identity or using a pseudonym on the Internet “is an example of a lack of integrity.” After all, he built his business around the belief that we want to live in public — and should.

How times have changed. Recently, Zuckerberg admitted that the “pressure of real identity” online is “a burden.” More significantly, Facebook attempted to spend $3 billion to buy the messaging app Snapchat, part of a newer tech wave that’s all about the ephemeral, secret, private or anonymous — digital expression we’d prefer not become part of our permanent, public record.

It’s not that anonymity is a new phenomenon, on the Internet or anywhere else. But this drumbeat of new products and services adds up to an emerging marketplace that capitalizes on the desire for privacy. “None of your business” is now a business.

With Snapchat, that means a way to send messages or pictures that essentially self-destruct. Other examples include the much-buzzed-about app Whisper, a platform for anonymously confessing secrets to an audience of strangers. (Read my colleague Alyssa Bereznak’s road test here.) A similar, newer app designed to share private thoughts with friends is called simply Secret. For a less lighthearted response to the demand for non-public communication, there’s the forthcoming Blackphone, with software for encrypted voice, video and text communication, among other features. And a forthcoming app developed by Rutgers’ Janne Lindqvist promises to alert Android users when other apps are tracking their location. And so on.

Some of the reasons for these privacy-ensuring products are no secret: the constant front-page news about the government snooping via your phone, your webcam and Angry Birds, for example. Along the way, we’ve been reminded just how much data about us is routinely collected by private companies — thus when Google bought Nest, part of the reaction involved predictions about being spied on by our smoke detectors. And, as Target recently demonstrated, data compiled by a corporation may not stay within that corporation.

But there’s more going on here than a simple backlash or Big Brother paranoia. Christopher Poole — also known as “moot,” the founder of subterranean Internet message board 4chan — made an upbeat case for anonymity in this concise TED talk a few years ago. The anarchy of 4chan’s notorious /b/ board, while certainly spitting out plenty that’s stupid, offensive or worse, has also produced creative and productive things, precisely because its faceless structure provided “an outlet where I can be myself,” Poole argued. “We’re moving toward persistent identity — we’re moving toward a lack of privacy, really,” he continued, referring to the rise of social networking services. “We’re losing something valuable.”

The idea that one can most truly “be oneself” when one’s identity is completely hidden sounds contradictory. But consider the popularity of Post Secret (a longstanding project involving anonymous confessions) or the Confession Bear meme, popular on Reddit. Like those precedents, Whisper and Secret serve as a forum for expression explicitly disconnected from “real” identity. And it seems designed to create vaguely 4chan-like interaction and riffing among its faceless users.

It’s not just about secrets, but about a particular variety of creativity and fun that might be too risky to engage in publicly.

Like Snapchat, Whisper is said to have a young user base, and that makes sense — youth is a time of exploring identity, not just projecting it. But I suspect there’s a growing appeal to private venues simply because even the non-youthful among us have gotten burned out on living in public: Calibrating every casual online remark against its potential gaffe factor gets tiresome.

That exhaustion has been compounded by a drastic overemphasis on extroverted behaviors in tech innovation. The assumption that we all want to “share” every song we listen to, article we read and brunch we’re about to scarf has much more to do with venture capitalists obsessed with measurable “scalability” than it does with how human beings exist in the world. Private meaning is hard to capture in numbers, but it matters.

In fact, the final reason I’d suggest for the new privacy chic is that Zuckerberg’s earlier theory of life and identity was simply naïve. Having differing personal personas in different contexts doesn’t suggest “a lack of integrity.” It suggests humanity. Ditto his earlier musings about privacy fading as a “social norm,” and Eric Schmidt’s famous dismissal of concerns about Google’s data harvesting: “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

In the post-Snowden era, this indifference to privacy sounds like the wishful thinking of tech titans with a stake in a transparent future. But the comments really reflect a failure to understand what makes a person a person.

It’s one thing to accept the intellectual notion that, given enough data, algorithms can know us so completely that they not only serve but also anticipate our every need. It’s something else to find that scenario desirable. In real life, most of us would prefer to believe that we contain multitudes that transcend predictability.

At the very least, I think we’d all prefer to have spaces to say and do things that don’t figure into our public identity forever after. One useful articulation of that desire comes from, of all people, Google co-founder Larry Page. In the course of complaining about the hassles of government regulation, he once mused that perhaps “we should set aside some small part of the world — you know, like going to Burning Man … that’s an environment where people try out different things,” in a context outside the consequences of traditional norms. “I think as technologists we should have some safe places,” Page continued, “where we can try out some new things.”

Very insightful, Larry. I’d say non-“technologists” need the exact same thing.

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