Whatever happens in the world of technology in 2013, one thing is clear – we will be sharing more this year. Sharing more personal data, that is. The newly powerful web 3.0
companies facilitating the sharing of everything from status updates and digital photos to music playlists and your very location on the planet are now moving into top gear, collating and turning your personal information on Facebook, Twitter and Google into marketable products for advertisers.
The more we share, the more connected and engaged we become and the more meaningful our relationships with each other are. Well, that’s the pitch, anyway, from the likes of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and Silicon Valley venture capitalist Reid Hoffman, who created LinkedIn and has invested in numerous other successful social media companies. Hoffman believes privacy is for old people and sharing is good.
“Everything you gather, the user knows it’s there because they are participating,” he says. “They are buying into the benefit of it, and you are getting the benefit too.” But that buy-in is still, thankfully, a hard-won and fragile thing, as Facebook discovered in the lead-up to Christmas, when it tried to change the terms and conditions of its newly acquired billion-dollar photo-sharing service Instagram.
The updated small print was broad and vague enough to convince many that Instagram would be able to not only include ads in its service, but sell its users’ photos to advertisers. The response, fuelled by the social network effect itself, was instant and blistering. “I have deleted all photos of my family from Facebook,” wrote one friend on Facebook. “Instagram may be only the beginning.”
Within 24 hours, Facebook had caved to user pressure, reversing the changes. “I want to be really clear,” Instagram founder Kevin Systrom wrote in a grovelling blog, “Instagram has no intention of selling your photos, and we never did. We don’t own your photos – you do.”
The Instagram debacle is the latest in a long string of attempts by social media companies to push the envelope on privacy in a bid to do more with our data. It also again revealed the naivety of many who delight in the sharing these services promote.
These web companies, with their multi-billion-dollar valuations and earnings updates to be delivered to Wall Street every quarter, are serious businesses. Forget HP, Sony and Microsoft. These are the new technology power merchants. After building massive audiences from whom they’ve collected hoards of personal data, they are now intent on somehow monetising that content. While they figure out how to do so without alienating too many people, the sharing accelerates. Zuckerberg even coined a term for it – Zuckerberg’s Law.
“I would expect that, next year, people will share twice as much information as they share this year, and next year they will be sharing twice as much as they did the year before,” the fresh-faced multibillionaire said a few years ago.
So far, he seems to be right. Sharing is now the default setting on the social web. Friends not on Facebook are out of the loop. If you are not on LinkedIn, you’ll instantly raise suspicions in the minds of recruiters poring over your CV. People want to be able to tag you in photos and share party invites with you online. If you’re not sociable, you’ll miss the party.
We are entering a new phase of social media, which some call the “hypervisible” age. Indeed, sharing has the power to do enormous good. Last year, Google Earth co-founder Michael Jones told me how the search engine giant had been trying to persuade the US Government to give Google anonymised health records for millions of US citizens.
Google’s clever algorithms would be able to crunch that data to give health officials an unprecedented view of the labyrinthine US health sector, saving money and lives. The US Government, worried about privacy, said no. That sort of paternalism seems increasingly quaint. But these regular flare-ups over privacy on social networks, irrational as they sometimes are, fuel something we need to nurture – a constant questioning of the value of all of this sharing.