Posted by: Andrew | May 1, 2008

We are the media

Google skipper Eric Schmidt clearly hits a pressure point when he says that social networks need to be more open – in terms of the portability of applications and their exposure to search. I for one am sick of people burning sites like Facebook at the stake over privacy concerns – if you choose to live your life online (as Schmidt eloquently puts it), then how can you justify throwing a fit over access to your personal information? The Web was designed for open communication. When it’s open, people and companies benefit (cases in point: Firefox, Jonathan Schwartz’s Sun Microsystems blog, indie rock artists, anyone looking to score tickets on StubHub). When it’s walled, the Web loses its potential as a social connective tissue. It’s counterintuitive and a step backward for everyone.

But isn’t everyone entitled to at least some modicum of privacy? I can’t claim that my Facebook profile is open for the world to see, or that I don’t keep my photo albums invisible to strangers. Sometimes I enjoy hanging out with my friends at a quiet lounge in a private booth, rather than at a sprawling club shoulder-to-shoulder with a thousand strangers. Isn’t that my right?

I think the rub is that more and more, we are the media we’re consuming. Sure, we still love watching “The Office” on Hulu, but we also love interacting with our friends, watching consumer videos, networking with people who share our interests. So naturally, why not make our data and apps more widely available, since in doing so we can exponentially increase our ability to connect with friends and create/access content that’s most relevant to us and our social graph? Sure, we still have the right to mark certain data as private, and I think this is where Schmidt misses the mark, since clearly no one lives his life entirely online. We’re caught somewhere in the middle of offline and online existence, and we’ll always live on a spectrum between these two extremes.

The openness of the Web isn’t a new development; it’s always been an open medium at heart. But I’m not sure we all realized just how big the Web is, which is why so many of us feel duped. Most of us, after all, still remember a time when we got our media solely through personal TV sets, radio and print subscriptions, where communication occurred in the insular spaces of our living rooms and we were just anonymous figures to whom media companies force-fed information. The reality today is that we aren’t consuming media privately during dinner, but openly in front of the entire world. And more often we are creators as well as the consumers.

So before we skin companies like Facebook and Blockbuster for dipping into our personal data, we need to remember that the Web is open partly because we made it so – because we demanded it. Privacy is a right, but openness is a luxury that only the Internet can furnish. What we need, then, is not more privacy or more openness, but a clearer distinction between the open and closed spaces – the loud, sweaty superclub at the Web’s core, and the lounge off to the side where we can enjoy a good glass of scotch and friendly conversation. Do a better job of identifying the doorway between these spaces, and you’ll assuage the rabble and make the Web a better place for everyone.

UPDATE: A column from L. Gordon Crovitz got me thinking that I left out an important topic – cookies. This needs to be included in the conversation because Web privacy is so much more than controlling how our names are tied to pictures, videos and other content. In reality, a lot of the controversy stems from cookies that have more subtle connections to our online and offline identities.

I think again, we need to define what constitutes proper use of our Web history and activity. I think cookies have a purpose and can actually help consumers in the long run by improving their Web experience. The potential to make ads more targeted and relevant will make the online experience better for everyone. Frankly, I’m less worried about cookies themselves and more concerned about how our elected official uses them. And to that end, I don’t think our problem is the technology, but the lack of trustworthiness of our government.

For starters, we need to put more technologists and media visionaries in government, particularly the FCC. We must continue to enforce the ground rules that companies can never access our names along with our data. And we need to elect a President who understands the importance of net neutrality and the perils of using the Web to aid extralegal domestic spying programs. Reign in the PATRIOT Act, and I bet a lot of the stink over cookies would go away. Finally, I agree with Crovitz that the public needs to gain a better understanding of what cookies are and why there’s little reason to fear them. Again, this goes back to what I said earlier: do a better job of defining what’s open and closed on the Web, and you’ll make a lot of people happier. Essentially, this boils down to better education about cookies and the like. Teach the people and you build their trust in you. Then, many consumers will realize that it’s in their interests to keep the Web an open space.



  1. […] your arms, open your hearts It would seem that MySpace is right in line with Eric Schmidt’s feelings about openness, with their announcement this week that they’ll now let users make their data more portable […]

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