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Thank You for Not Sharing (A Rant)

- December 2, 2007

In a November 28 Wall Street Journal column titled “Just How Much Do We Want to Share on Social Networks?” Vauhini Vara described a new Facebook service called “Beacon” (here, gated). I’m not into the “Facebook” scene, but if I understand correctly, Beacon is supposed to work like this. (1) You purchase something from an online retail site. (2) With your permission, Beacon adds that information to your Facebook profile. (3) The information then shows up in your friends’ Facebook accounts, as a “news feed” (e.g., “Lee just bought three pairs of underwear shorts from Overstock.com.”).

My response to this “service,” reflecting my 1950s midwestern upbringing, was “Ewwww.” Growing up where I did when I did, I was imbued with a sense of privacy: mind your own business, don’t ask personal questions, don’t talk much (especially about yourself), don’t voice strong opinions about anything more controversial than the weather, and never, ever talk about “feelings.”

In any event, there, at “Ewwww,” my reaction to Beacon remained — until two days later, when a front-page story in the Washington Post (here) reported that it was actually worse than I had imagined: Beacon was circulating Facebook members’ purchase information without their permission. At that point, my initial “Ewwww” turned into a “Grrrr,” and my ire was apparently shared by the more than 50,000 Facebook members who petitioned Facebook to cease and desist; the powers that be at Facebook then announced that Beacon would henceforth be activated only if a member took the affirmative step of clicking “ok.”

So, with Facebook having backed off on its original policy, good sense had triumphed. Or had it? The question now becomes more basic: Why would anyone click “ok” in the first place? Why as a matter of routine would one want to broadcast one’s buying activity? Why, relatedly, would one install a webcam in one’s apartment, or watch people reveal the most intimate and painful secrets about themselves on nationwide TV, or — touche! — rant about one’s pet peeves in a blog? I think Vara’s conclusion nails it: We as Americans are increasingly providing one another with more and more personal information that was once considered private, “for the sake of an ever more superficial sense of closeness.” My own answer to Vara’s titular question is: “As little as humanly possible. Keep it to yourself — and thanks for not sharing.”

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