almost 10 years on 2009-01-30


i literally can't keep up.  when we started in 2007 i was forecasting that 2009/2010 would be the years that privacy would become both functionally critical and culturally relevant...  but the speed at which privacy is exploding as an issue across the internet along several different lines of reasoning in jan 2009 is staggering. 

i mostly blog to help structure my own thoughts at this point (almost no one outside of my family reads this), and i feel completely behind the ball in integrating recent developments.  since i am not going to have a chance to write full posts on everything of interest going on, this will be a very brief overview of several of the critical trends that i am currently watching/thinking about.  it is giong to be a facinating facinating ride, and i am only sorry i don't have time to truely structure/write on what is unfolding in full and refined format.

1.  the michael arrington 'incident' highlights the central value of privacy and anonymity

as a very small number of obsessive tech people know, michael arrington, the face of techcrunch, recently announced in a long rant that he would be taking a 'break' from blogging after a specific incident where he was spat on by a disgruntled startup founder, but really as the result of an ever increasing volume of hate mail/comments, and the stress of a death threat.  no one should be spat at, and it is sad that he feels he cannot continue to pursue his business, but some of the social drivers of his decision (and his explanation) are fascinating.  among the relevant take away points from the incident:

a.  it highlights the personal value of privacy - someone will always disagree with you and your opinions, whatever they may be.  when you are publicly speaking to an audience of millions - or billions - with the weight of your own name, people will disagree - and some will disagree violently.  we have lived in a time of incredible prosperity and consensus around the globe (especially of the wired and engaged population) - but as the wired population expands and issues and power becomes more contentious people will move back to privacy

b.  it highlights the social value of anonymity - truth/freedom of speech fundamentally relies on anonymity to survive for the above reason.  it isn't just about whistle blowers - or, rather - the concept of whistle blowing goes far beyond exposing malicious corporate practices.  people need the ability to seek, consider, and discuss the nature of truth, and in a fully transparent world with total recall, people are not free.  attaching your name to an argument will always carry more weight, but for personal, family, or social reasons we can't loose the discourse of everyone who dislikes being spit on or has something to loose. 

c.  it highlights the problematic thesis of 'citizen journalism' and 'blogging' - arrington doesn't have the weight of a real news organization supporting his voice.  there is no ethics committee, and he has no guidelines.  the falling cost of content production allows him to speak to millions under his own power, which means he captures the upside when things go well - but he has nothing to support him when things go poorly.  this changes the nature of the discourse, and the relationship of the individual speaker to the discourse.  if he had clear process and structure, with a full system of editors and fact checkers backing him up, even if people were unhappy with "the mirror", it would be harder for them to argue with him.  one of the most interesting topics being currently debated is that the professional press is becoming ever more important, not less - and arrington, the uber-blogger, is demonstrating exactly why.

d.  it touched off a set of discussions about security, while the issue is actually privacy - the response to the arrington situation was techcrunch and mashable posts about privacy that really spoke about security.  privacy and security are distinct concepts, and while security is a war of attrition - privacy is alive and strong... it just requires a different approach to applications and the concept of communication.  the internet can be re-factored away from an ad-supported model and towards a conduit for real information sharing.

overall, it is shocking that arrington, the great proponent of the 'social and open' web is closing down.  i think it is probably more shocking to him than to anyone else...  i honestly think that he wholeheartedly bought into his claims for personal openness and total transparency, which means that this must be devastating for him.

2.  calacanis riffs on privacy and empathy

"i'm 100% convinced that the trend in 2010 and forward will be people trying to remove their virtual presence on sites like flickr, youtube, and facebook.  already, i've noticed people are moving their settings to private--perhaps something they should have done from the start."

jason calacanis, possibly in response to the arrington incident, or possibly not, wrote a very interesting and eloquent post about how living without privacy is/will destroy empathy.  while there is much i would disagree with, i think the spirit of his writing is spot on, "we are all canaries in the coal mines now".  it was interesting to hear how he moved away from a blog to a newsletter (an earlier semi-private, or at least not searched platform) in an attempt to regain control - but the real and final move will be back to speaking and exchanging privately with one another.

while very good, this again fits in the category of being noteworthy only because the biggest names in blogging and social media are starting to seriously wake up to the medium in which they are working and the nature of the discourse.

3.  clive thompson writes on "manufacturing confusion"

the calacanis and arrington blips spoke to the nature of personal identity and privacy in our brave new world.  clive thompson's article in wired "manufacturing confusion" strikes on a far deeper and more interesting problem.  namely, because the cost of speaking has dropped to zero, people manufacture any 'information' they want regardless of validity.  when everyone speaks no one can hear, and truth is indistinguishable from fiction.

i did take the time to respond in two parts below to clive's writings - so i won't dwell on them here, but the perspective he is asserting is critical.  the problem of communication and sharing online isn't just about personal identity and freedom of expression -- it is also about the fundamental technicals of the internet.  it is becoming easier and easier to manipulate information and people as the scale and speed at which information travels increases while the cost decreases. 

search and social are not the toolkit to fix this.  search, if anything, allows people to even more easily google the answers they want with total disregard for reality or balance, turning debate into baseless 'fact' sourcing.  social, if anything, allows micro populations to control the dialogue/information flow to limited groups.

3.  us credit card database is compromised, biggest privacy breach yet.

you can't offload your privacy to third parties, and each huge 'private' data breach of centralized databases shows why.  private data, or any data for that matter, represents a pool of value.  the value of the data set is based on things like the raw amount of the data, the usefulness, and how structured it is (how easy it is to tap the sweet sweet nectar).  for now, people are mainly concerned with "private" data in terms of immediately usable credit and cash.  that is why the credit card processors need to invest so much in defense, and why hackers are willing and able to spend more and more time and money assaulting them with the types of results we have been seeing recently.

that said, credit card databases are not the only pools of value.  stores of structured personal data and social information are getting to be more and more attractive targets.  so, as facebook and twitter continue to grow their centralized datasets by hundreds of thousands of people a day they are going to become targets and/or they will use the data in unwanted ways themselves (because the value will be too enormous and attractive in aggregate).

more later, but the point here is that as datasets grow, they are going to fight an increasingly expensive and impossible war of attrition against those targeting to acquire valuable data.  there are solutions, like that keeps the data-sets federated/diffuse enough that you might be able to trust third parties, but the point is this....  the 'privacy' solution is not about offloading your content/privacy issues to a third party, they are about how you publicly interact.  security is a war of attrition, and privacy is a totally separate game that can't be offloaded to a third party.

4.  kanye  gets hacked, paris hilton admits it is all a ruse - and the joke is on us

which leaves me with kanye and paris.  kanye is claiming his gmail got hacked and people used it to send offensive emails (or at least emails he didn't want sent).  there is no way to know the truth of what went on...  but the key is that kanye got burned by letting third party technology assume control over part of his identity/self.  the medium controlled the man...  while, at the same time, paris hilton seemed to offhandedly admit that she is an even better actor than stephen colbert, and that she has just been playing a dumb blond in the public sphere. (i actually always suspected as much). 

so, where did january 2009 leave us?

arrington has become a victim of his own identity
kanye has become a victim of the medium
paris admits she has been masterfully controlling the identity and the medium the whole time

leading me to believe that ms. hilton actually had it all right from the beginning.

original swl blogposts and letters 2007-2010