Monday, October 18, 2010

Facebook, Privacy, and the Bettering of Society

All everyone's been talking about is The Social Network, the so-called Facebook movie. And with good reason: it's a damn good film, even if it took some time on the way home from the theater to come up with even one likable character. (We eventually settled on Larry Summers, and, maybe, Erica and Rashida Jones' character.) I'll have some more thoughts on the film, I hope, later this week, but I found it interesting that so many publications used the occasion of the film's release to talk about Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg. As opposed to the usual formula of the movie following a book--even as The Social Network is based on Ben Mezrich's The Accidental Billionaires--here we have an outpouring of the written word following a film.

The best of these, at least of the ones I've read, is Jose Antonio Vargas' profile of Zuckerberg in the September 20th edition of The New Yorker. There's the usual history and background, but where Vargas really excels is in discussing issues familiar to any of Facebook's users, a number somewhere around half a billion worldwide.

Here's Vargas on Facebook and privacy, one of the recurring issues of our new digital lives:
Danah Boyd, a social-media researcher at Microsoft Research New England, added, “This is a philosophical battle. Zuckerberg thinks the world would be a better place—and more honest, you’ll hear that word over and over again—if people were more open and transparent. My feeling is, it’s not worth the cost for a lot of individuals.”

Zuckerberg and I talked about this the first time I signed up for Facebook, in September, 2006. Users are asked to check a box to indicate whether they’re interested in men or in women. I told Zuckerberg that it took me a few hours to decide which box to check. If I said on Facebook that I’m a man interested in men, all my Facebook friends, including relatives, co-workers, sources—some of whom might not approve of homosexuality—would see it.

“So what did you end up doing?” Zuckerberg asked.

“I put men.”

“That’s interesting. No one has done a study on this, as far as I can tell, but I think Facebook might be the first place where a large number of people have come out,” he said. “We didn’t create that—society was generally ready for that.” He went on, “I think this is just part of the general trend that we talked about, about society being more open, and I think that’s good.”
I've never understood Zuckerberg's claim that openness is good. I always pictured this as the posturing of someone whose billion-dollar company requires the redefinition of online privacy in such a way that maximizes profits. But, now, I'm not so sure. I still don't necessarily want my grandmother to see all the pictures I'm tagged in, but it might actually be a good thing--both for individuals and our society at large--if, for example, people felt more comfortable being honest about their sexuality. Who knows, maybe Facebook is doing some good after all.

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