Privacy is no longer a "social norm," Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said last year. At first glance, it seems that Zuckerberg is right. More than half a billion people use his site to share all sorts of intimate details of their lives with others loosely defined as "friends."
In your own life, you've likely noticed that people are broadcasting details that they used to reserve for small circles of friends. They announce when they break up with a romantic partner as casually as they mention what they are cooking for dinner or where they are shopping. Teens and twentysomethings seem particularly fond of such sharing, leading many people to conclude that younger people care little about privacy.
But Zuckerberg is wrong, and the fact that you know what your cousin had for dinner doesn't change that. Privacy does matter to everyone, regardless of birth date. Even if you opt to tell many people when you are drunk or with whom you are
sleeping, you care about privacy. It's not about what you share and where you reveal it. Privacy is about the fact that you have a choice in what you reveal and that you exercise the choice knowingly.
Zuckerberg is using a different and overly simplistic definition of privacy. By this definition, privacy covers only a set of aspects or actions that people generally wish to keep to themselves: essentially, matters of sex, drugs, and—occasionally—rock and roll. Using such a definition is convenient for Zuckerberg because ignoring the real meaning of privacy helps him run his business without fear or guilt.
But privacy is not about a universal set of behaviors. Nor is it just about sexual orientation or HIV status. Nor does it have the same meaning in every venue in which we live and move.
When we complain about infringements on our privacy, what we really are demanding is some measure of control over our reputations in the world. Who should have the power to collect, cross-reference, publicize, or share information about us, regardless of what information that might be? If I choose to declare my romantic status to my friends on Facebook, then at least it's my choice, not Facebook's.
Interestingly, younger people are exerting more control over their online reputations than older people. According to a 2009 survey by the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project, 71 percent of Facebook users aged 18 to 29 reported changing their privacy settings to limit the amount of information they disclose about themselves; only 62 percent of those 30 to 49, and 55 percent of those between the ages of 50 and 64, had done so. It may be that young people care more about control of their privacy than their older peers do, or perhaps they're just more technically literate.
But the kind of control anyone can exert by tweaking privacy settings is minimal. Through a combination of weak policies, poor public discussion, and some remarkable inventions, including social networking services and mobile smartphones with cameras, we have less and less control over our reputations every day. That doesn't mean we want less control. But as long as we are held accountable for youthful indiscretions that potential employers or customs agents can easily google, our opportunities for social, intellectual, and actual mobility are limited. And we are denied second chances.