Google Buzz – another moral panic over “public by default”
The messages on Twitter and Facebook containing warnings regarding a ‘huge privacy flaw’ in Google’s Buzz started popping up right after the first users noticed Buzz was available. A few weeks ago, Facebook’s move towards ‘public as default’ caused numerous outcries, now Google had taken up this notion of a new status quo and provided Buzz users with public by default settings. What people keep bemoaning is clearly not a flaw but intention – why would Google launch a system that competes with Facebook but resort to privacy standards that they perceive below (depending on your view it is: above) Facebook’s standards?
In contrast to Facebook, where working through all privacy and account settings can take up quite a bit of your time, and where they seem to undergo changes every now and then, Google’s Buzz offers a simple link to your profile where you can edit it. 3 options are available, ticked by default:
- Display my full name so I can be found in search
- Allow people to contact me (without showing my email address)
- Display the list of people I’m following and people following me
Untick at least option 2 as viewers are actually able to see you full email address, once they click on it. Untick all 3 options and you are done with privacy.
A full list of all options and possibilities illustrated with screenshots that also show you where to switch off Buzz entirely is available on: FastCompany.com. There is also the Google Buzz Video on Youtube and more on Google.com/buzz .
Then there is an option to choose between 2 different styles of your Profile URL and a menu that allows you to add links (URLs) to your social networking sites, outside Google’s world (i.e. beyond Blogspot, Picasa, the RSS Reader etc.). You can add your Linkedin profile, your LifeJournal, Twitter, Flickr etc. So far, I found it a straightforward way to handle privacy and decide to what degree I want to keep my connections public or not. Following others is equally easy: either click on follow or unfollow in structures which resemble Twitter.
What I find a lot more complex is the ongoing pro/con debate on Twitter and subsequent blogposts. I wished we, in particular the academic and technology expert community, moved on to a tone that enabled a debate beyond the simplified notion: users need privacy [by default]. We have shown that privacy is on our mind, but not all the time. The degree, to which we post consciously personal details, full email addresses and other potentially compromising data on the web, is not static and purely based on our age, social class and educational background. Rather, we may post information, share links and leave traces that we regret at a later point – simply because we are not rational beings 24/7 (some of us tweet in pubs, in moments of overjoy, frustration, while tired or very hungry…).
We may also get distracted or experience an impatient moment when we log in a social networking site that offers an unexpected dialogue requesting us to make a yes/no or now/later decision when all we want right now is to respond to that interesting / hilarious / unfair / nasty comment one of our friends posted and it got forwarded to our email inbox. It’s all about priorities. Then we fail to remember that there was something waiting for us to make – a not so exiting, let’s be honest – privacy decision. And there is no reminder (we seem to have become used to reminders: welcome back, switch off your out of office reply; your payment is due; your deadline is fast approaching etc).
I agree with the idea that social networking sites need to offer privacy options that are easy to navigate, clear in wording and transparent in their accessibility within the site. However, I also believe that we urgently need to move on towards a more mature discussion of what we can expect from users and how we should learn to grow up within the social media that we keep using on a daily basis. We do not benefit from systems that reflect a virtual nanny state but rather, we are living in an age where choices and options can leave us somewhat paralysed (analogous to dozens of TV channels to choose from – and no one telling us to switch it off).
Once we have understood that privacy is not a vain exercise but vital to our long-term well-being and sense of control, it should become less of a controversial notion to navigate around in a new system and familiarise ourselves with the available options. Rather than waiting for the day someone annoys us with their comments or – worst case scenario – has hacked our account, it should be informed by our sense of belonging to a virtual community to do that minimal piece of homework and surf the very site we use. It’s a bit like in real life – you rent an apartment and hold the property-owner responsible for whatever does not work but you will need to take care of the keys, and ensure doors and windows are being closed on a daily basis.
I am not saying that all the responsibility lies with the user but that the world of social media is a very dynamic space and users need to continue to respond to security holes, hidden gaps, poorly structured privacy settings etc. But at the same time they also need to resist resorting to moral panics every time a new system is being launched – mainly, because this prevents system developers / providers and users from having an efficient and meaningful dialogue. It seems to create an aggressive bubble in which pro/con arguments are being traded when all we need is to look at how the system can be improved towards a standard that is acceptable (to all age groups) at a certain point in time. After all, Buzz privacy settings might become as overblown and still not fully satisfactory just as Facebook’s are right now, yet, it would be a lot more useful and socially sustainable to develop a stance as user that perceives negotiating various options and flaws by taking in more complex views – and making this the very ‘default option’.
About Britta Bohlinger, CFEFounder and Director of RisikoKlár in Iceland. Native German, global perspective - previously in London and Berlin.
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