Social Web Etiquette

The web is atwitter with coverage of Google’s foray into social media with Google Buzz. Gmail users have probably noticed the Google logo-hued talk bubble that muscled its way onto their inboxes in February. For some, Buzz was a welcome addition to the fGmail party. Others wished they’d had the option to turn it away at the door. It’s one thing to have an unwanted guest turn up and wrangle his way in. It’s another to have someone else controlling the guest list and then making it available for all to see.

Sure, my Twitter followers are visible (because I opt for them to be). But Twitter sits way outside my inbox. For many, the inbox is populated by contacts they may not want to share with the world. Buzz made one big social gaffe when it not only butted into Gmail users’ contact lists and chats (as well as Picasa and Reader accounts), but it then automatically signed up followers for users by mapping social connections based on who a user contacts most often.

Worse, all of your followers appeared on your publicly available Google profile. While it isn’t too difficult to change this setting, users not only have to be aware of this vulnerability, but they also must actively seek out a solution rather than be prompted to set this up upon initial usage (or simply default to a more private setting). Clearly, revealing followers automatically culled from one’s email list could lead to others learning that you’ve been actively emailing a rival firm, a doctor, or other correspondence you’d rather not share with your employer, spouse, or the general public. Google has been highly responsive in making changes, with more to come, including simplifying the means to hide Buzz altogether and adjusting privacy controls.

However, the frenzy and vitriol of the response about Buzz’s privacy issues (which includes a class action suit filed in federal court and an Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) FCC complaint) brought to mind a quote by one of the fathers of social networking, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who believes privacy is no longer a “social norm.” The 25-year-old entrepreneur asserts that “People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. … That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.”

In fact, despite his own company’s privacy-related imbroglio in January, Zuckerberg told a 2010 TechCrunch audience that if he were to create Facebook again today, user information would be public by default, not private as it was for years until the company changed dramatically last December. Facebook’s director of corporate communications and public policy, Barry Schnitt, told ReadWriteWeb that he also thinks the world is becoming more open, citing evidence such as Twitter, MySpace, comments posted to newspaper websites, and the rise of reality TV.

It is hard to argue that people, particularly younger ones, live more publicly than ever before. It was the norm to keep soiled laundry in one’s own hamper. This gave way to a generation who would share it from the relative privacy of a therapist’s couch to one in which an aberrant few flaunt it on The Jerry Springer Show. We have seen an, er, evolution of our notion of privacy. Now, the work force is being peopled by a generation raised in social networking environments, in which intimate details of one’s preferences, opinions, and activities are routinely shared with a group of friends—many of whom never meet offline.

Consider the site Here, users share locations and information about where they (purportedly) “made love.” While a willingness—no, an anxiousness—to boast about one’s (purported) sexual activity might once have been relegated to the locker room or slumber parties, it is now something a certain demographic gladly shares with anyone who might be out there paying attention. Still, teenage judgment regarding matters of the “heart” has never been stellar.

By the same token, stupid criminals are not a new phenomenon either (to wit, “World’s Dumbest Criminals”). However, I was surprised to read that the police routinely monitor Twitter for gang activity … because gang members tweet about their “accomplishments” as well as current and future illicit plans. Dozens of Facebook accounts are dedicated to the deadly MS-13 gang, with followers from around the globe.

I’ve been aware of the changing notions of privacy since I had the realization that asking younger users for personal information in exchange for “free” content was a nonissue. The privacy bar keeps moving, and we need to closely monitor these changing mores as we do business. However, it appears that the notion of privacy has not been abandoned altogether. According to the Pew Internet & American Life project, both teens and adults actively manage their information online, with 60% of adults and 66% of teens restricting access to information in their Facebook profiles. However, given the way in which the new defaults appear to be made based on the new social norms observed by Zuckerberg, private parties may soon be a thing of the past.