Danah Boyd SXSW Keynote: Privacy is History

"Privacy is not dead."

Microsoft's social media researcher, Danah Boyd, spoke at South By Southwest Interactive today in the opening keynote titled "Privacy and Publicity." As a social media user who was weaned on AOL, I was interested to hear what kind of perspective a social media researcher (whose job didn't even exist until the last, what, ten years?) would have to say about the state of privacy and where we go from here.

Most of her discussion was dominated by a deconstruction of the GoogleBuzz PR nightmare (or what Boyd might have you believe was a nightmare). The sweeping theme was that Google mismanaged users' expectations of their privacy by assuming that those who would want to opt-out would do so. While Boyd delved into other privacy "fails" -- Facebook's content coup and Miley's Twitter meltdown -- the Google hating was a touch uncomfortable, particularly coming from someone employed by Microsoft's research department.

Boyd cautioned that technology companies shouldn't rely on gaining users or content through the assumptive close of users clicking through, while ignoring the fact that clicking through is exactly what we all are doing because we just don't care about our privacy as much as we used to. It's not a bad thing, it's just what our online habits have conditioned us to do.

She also talked about how most people are still relatively obscure online, but didn't explain how this obscurity grows with every Twitter account or YouTube video uploaded. The new reality of online privacy is that everyone has been lost in the proverbial haystack. Vivid images including the obligatory cute cat photo were pulled from Flickr's database to accompany Boyd's presentation. The man yelling at the camera whose mouth was featured on a giant screen will likely never know he was part of the presentation and my guess is, if he ever did find out, he wouldn't care.

When I was thirteen, poking around Netscape Navigator at all hours of the night, I remember my parents' words of caution: "Be careful who you meet online." Well, guess what Mom and Dad! Half the people I've met at this event are people I met online. We buy houses, look for soulmates and upload sonograms as TwitPics. Unborn babies have Twitter accounts; we feed our narcissism by "checking in" our exact locations on applications like Foursquare and Gowalla. And while GoogleBuzz might have had some messy PR for a few weeks by making the big switch, it sure hasn't stopped my non-Twittering sister from regularly interacting on it with her friends. Sorry, Microsoft, but I'd say that was a Google #win.

Privacy, in most people's cases, is only a problem when it becomes one. As our parameters of what defines a problem expand with our culture, so will the importance of privacy. So if you think privacy isn't dead, then you're in denial of or ignoring the more important issue: It's dying. What next?

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