Facebook, the world’s biggest social networking website, is attempting to become the one-stop media hub for its 750 million users. That is roughly what its founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced last week at f8, Facebook’s annual conference in San Francisco. Wait, then, for the whole issue of privacy to be dredged up again.
As the debate over what Facebook should reveal, or what Google shouldn’t, gets going, the question arises: is there a choice anymore? Haven’t we given up all semblance of control to whatever media we choose to broadcast from or use? This is not a moral statement or a value judgement; it is a statement of fact.
Think about it. In the bygone days you hung out at the local temple, mosque, church or some other place where all communities gathered. That was what socialising was about. Then as we “evolved”, we would hang out at each other’s houses, in a restaurant (if we had the money) or on the street outside. Now you do it alone, online. In fact, in spite of a plethora of options – multiplexes, malls, leisure parks, bigger houses and so on – it is evident that young people, the favourite target group for media companies, love staring at a screen. That is their idea of fun and games. That is their idea of meeting friends and chatting with them. And if they do meet friends in person, they do so to converge around some screen. This could be a PC, laptop, TV, iPad, gaming console or a mobile screen, among others.
It is paradoxical. The media exploits our need for company, for sharing our little triumphs and disappointments. It is about getting people together — whether to cheer a player in a game or kill aliens in another. But the media does this by making us more dependent on something that further isolates us from society. So you have an entire generation of youngsters who find it impossible to meet your eye and say “good evening or hello”. In all probability, they are studs online, strutting their ability for witty repartee or cool music.
What it means for media marketers is a massive headache as attention spans shrink. However, what this increasingly isolated and intense consumption of the media means for individual privacy and the debate around it is more interesting because of its contradictions. Fifty years ago, there was no such debate because there was no such place to go and bare your chest. Now we choose to announce that we are “getting married”, “seeing someone”, “breaking up with someone”, or have “got a job”, “found a recipe”, “heard a song”, “seen a movie” and so on in a digital market square with hundreds of thousands of people listening in.
By putting it on a public forum we are clearly indicating the need to express our grief or happiness or share an opinion. That is a choice we are making. That puts Facebook or Twitter within their right to sell our likes and dislikes to the highest bidder. It is silly to expect them to care about our privacy when we choose to give it up.
And the whole question of privacy is not just about what these brands do; it is also about what the state demands. There is a demand that the net should not be censored in the name of privacy. That is unfair. If films, TV, and newspapers have to follow a content code, why is the net different?
Take the example of news channels. They are, rightly, drawing regulatory and consumer ire over falling standards. Yet, much rubbish is available on the net, some of it even false, malicious and libellous. It may be causing untold damage to people who take it seriously. Imagine you read up on an illness and the website does not mention that certain types of people may be allergic to the medicine it recommends. What applies to news channels, therefore, should apply equally to the internet.
The whole debate about privacy is ironic considering that the building blocks of the net make tracking and blocking it much easier than newspapers or television. For more than 15 years, ever since the birth of the Internet, cookies have been around. Everyone knows that internet protocol addresses can be traced. That is how cyber crimes are cracked.
For those who really crave privacy one common-sensical precaution works: do not discuss personal stuff loudly and in public.