“The only reason privacy ever existed is because Facebook didn’t”


The title quote comes from a British postgraduate student, and for the past couple of years I’ve found it useful to get students talking and thinking about how social media influence/shape/challenge our existing norms. Of course there are some who believe that social media mostly destroy what should be our norms, and the issue of privacy gets much of the attention.

Like everyone else who is glued to a screen for the better part of most days, I have also been reading about Facebook Home, the new (not-actually-a-)phone thingy in the works. The New Yorker describes it as cycling ‘through a collection of full-screen photos pulled from Facebook, which it pairs with status updates from friends, whooshing from one update to another’, which sounds like a perfectly horrible thing to have happening on my phone. No thanks.

But unsurprisingly the option of ‘no thanks’, or indeed the possibility that it will be a total flop, or maybe that it just won’t be that big a deal is lost on people like Baroness Susan Greenfield, who already predicts that it will change the very nature of … well, everything. She invokes the famous neuroplasticity – our brain’s ability to adapt – to raise concerns about ‘the ethics and risk of the possible collation of the ensuing Tsunami of personal information now flooding into the central Facebook databases’, and about what might happen to us as a result. She continues:

Already privacy appears to be a less prized commodity among the younger generation of ‘Digital Natives’: apparently 55 per cent of teenagers have given out personal information to someone they don’t know, including photos and physical descriptions. Meanwhile over half send out group messages to typically over 500 ‘friends’ at a time, fully aware that each of these friends could then pass on that information to their network of further hundreds… It has become more important to have attention, to be ‘famous’. The trade-off for such disclosure and indeed fame is, and always has been, loss of privacy.

Now Greenfield is a neuroscientist, so I’m happy to concede that she knows a lot more about the brain that I do. But as a scientist, I’d also expect her to be much more careful about how she makes her claims – especially if she wants anyone to believe what she’s saying. So I’d want to know, for example, who exactly these 55% ‘of teenagers’ are: in the world? In a survey, in London, of 1000? And over half of all teenagers send out messages to over 500 people at a time? That doesn’t sound quite right to me, but even if it is, the next question is what exactly is the ‘risk’ associated with that? Yes, we’ve all heard the scare stories about paedophiles on the Interwebs, but I wouldn’t be surprised if teenagers are actually more careful about what and how they communicate online than their poor old parents, those “Digital Immigrants” struggling to keep up.

As for equating getting some Facebook attention with being ‘famous’, that’s stretching the meaning of celebrity just a little too thin – unless plasticity of the brain includes semantic elasticity. And as the chronicle of one man who bought himself a fake Facebook girlfriend brilliantly demonstrates, just because you’re putting information out there doesn’t mean anyone is actually paying attention. In his well-chosen words:

Aside from one message asking if I was going out with a spammer, my Facebook friends were oblivious to my exciting new love life. My brother didn’t notice. My parents didn’t notice. None of my friends from work or school or university expressed even the slightest bit of joy or concern about anything that was happening to me. Finally, after five days of this nonsense, I took it upon myself quietly to dump Martha and Veronica. To misquote Elton John, our candle had burned out long before literally anyone important in my life gave a billionth of a shit about it.

Look, I’m not saying that there aren’t problems with how little people keep to themselves, or that social media aren’t capable of encouraging some pretty anti-social behaviour. The technology of the future can look pretty scary too – especially if you’re Charlie Brooker (watch “The Entire History of You” and “Be Right Back” if you want to be a bit afraid of what’s in store).

But until then, the stuff that works (I’m not looking at you, Google+) is pretty damn amazing. And until there is actual evidence that we have anything to panic about, then it must be the responsibility of clever people around the world not to traffic in unnecessary scare-mongering. Let’s not forget that we don’t need to be terrified away from something in order to say no thanks. It could just be rubbish.

Update: From The Guardian, a good piece on Susan Greenfield and the rise of the Facebook zombies.