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The Private as Public, Intentionality, and Designing the Future

. PeteW

What the… Oh, man! I feel like I just became my dad. And anybody who’s a parent who feels that way usually doesn’t like what they’re feeling the moment this happens. For me, the moment was grounding my 14 year old daughter from Facebook for a time. She just got an account this past November, guidelines and expectations were set, and things were going find until Jr high social life drama (inevitably) ensues. Ah, Facebook--where else would a 14 year old go to share their most personal thoughts and feelings? Only, it’s just not a great idea to use a public forum as your private diary that’s open and available for the world to read (and scrape data from, and data mine, etc. etc.)

What just happened? A bad decision by my daughter? Epic fail by her parents?

Well, I got curious and started looking around at what’s going on with the habits and practices of different people who use social media like Facebook and I found some interesting things that are not only relevant for me, but also relevant to anyone who’s involved with technology, business, or even being a kid or a parent. So, just to put everyone in the same frame of mind: What would you do if someone you’re very close to decided to start sharing detailed, personal aspects of their life in a public place?

According to many recent studies and papers your reaction depends greatly on how you grew up with technology. Gen X (and older), who grew up without cell phones, internet, and social media finds the idea of sharing their private life publicly online as something they have difficulty with (and Boomers perhaps even more so).

Now, to a Gen Y person, sharing your private life in this way is a perfectly acceptable and comfortable way to share who they are. The fact that most of their private life is available for public consumption is fine. Don’t take my word for it— hear it from Gen Y people themselves.

It’s not just a simple age difference though—the evidence points to a nuanced relationship between people, their use of technology, and how they control the technology along with the control of the information they share using technology. For instance, one story in the San Francisco Examiner did an expose on a 28 year old woman who was one of the first Web cam girls on the internet. She would share details of her life online with total strangers everyday. What do you suppose her attitude was when she found out that her phone records were potentially being screened by the NSA?

"Yet when the 28-year-old San Francisco resident learned last week, along with millions of Americans, that the National Security Agency had collected the telephone records of unsuspecting citizens, it crossed Gira's privacy line.

Although atypical in her choices of hobby and profession, Gira is typical of many in her generation when it comes to privacy concerns. On the one hand, she and millions of citizens under 30 are actively engaging in online exhibitionism without fear of consequences. On the other hand, they seem more concerned than their parents about government eavesdropping in the name of U.S. security.

According to a national Pew Research Center Poll conducted in January, 56 percent of 18- to-29-year-olds surveyed said the government's policy of eavesdropping on suspected terrorists' phone calls and e-mails before obtaining court permission was generally wrong, while 53 percent of those 50 to 64 years old said it was the right thing to do. (Source: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2006/05/20/GENY.TMP&ao=all#ixzz1GAuUSR26 )"

So, there’s a built-in comfort level for sharing with people who’ve grown up on the Web. Further, there’s a potentially heightened sense concern over privacy—once it’s realized that organizations have potentially more control of their personal data than he/she does as the owner and author of one’s personal data. The point here is twofold: it matters how much control people have over their data and it matters whether or not people know what is being done to control their data.

Now then, couple this with a recent NY Times article The Footprints of Web Feet, highlighting a new trend of social Web offerings that are launching soon which all focus on making private browsing history public.

The history of the idea stems from a desire between two friends to keep in closer contact with one another. "Then at one point we just said to each other, 'What if we could just show each other what we're reading and watching and shopping for?' "

Of course something that might be applicable and appropriate to share between two friends quickly begs the privacy / control question if you apply this to sharing everything with everyone. Naturally, there are filters being put into place by the various offerings. Dscover.me has a 'white list' to share only a list of approved sites. Sitesimon is going to use a blacklist (don't share only these sites) based on the argument that discoveries are serendipitous. Sharing only from a whitelist misses opportunities that are new and in-the-moment.

From my point of view, both of these approaches miss the mark. Sharing isn't a blacklist or whitelist approach--it's tied to the context and affinities that are dynamic (i.e. relationships change according to the context in which we are engaged with in the moment). At a broad level, there are simply things that would make sense to share to some of my friends or colleagues and there are others that fit other friends or colleagues. In fact, many of the people, places, and products I encounter online would be odd or innappropriate to share with just everyone I know (or am friend with). A snarky political commentary might not be appropriate for my work friends. Likewise, a geeky new research paper on ethnomethodologies of elderly people that are new to using mobile technology to improve their wellness wouldn't be the highlight of the day for my wife and our friends.

Further, at a deeper level, the dynamics of what happens frequently shift in time. The meaning of a single thing--a book, a news story, a meme on the Web--mean different things to different people at different points in time. Egypt's Mubarak saw terrorists trying to overthrow the regime, while much of the rest of the world saw revolutionaries.

Control must be given to what, how, when, and with whom sharing takes place. Further, sharing needs to be considerate of context and shifts in meaning over time for different audiences. (A problem/opportunity that those who manage social media are dealing with now.)

Beyond the design of controls that can flow with the dynamics of people and their dynamic networks of people, this NY Times piece also raises a larger question:

Mina Tsay, a communications professor at Boston University who studies the psychological and social effects of media, said that in her studies of Facebook she found that frequent users saw the world as significantly more public than less-frequent users did — a source of misunderstanding familiar to many social media users.

Privacy notwithstanding, Dr. Tsay said social media’s evolution might create more-passive consumers of information: people too reliant on others to decide what’s interesting, stylish or valuable.

“In some ways, this might produce a society in which we end up conforming to buying the same products, seeing the same information, going on the same trip, depending on the same sources,” she said.

The argument countering this dystopian worldview is that technology which enables this kind of sharing may actually serve a useful purpose by making people more self-aware for how they behave online.

Adam Liebsohn, Voyurl founder, puts it this way: "If we're not following you, no matter what, somebody else is," he said. "The difference in this scenario is, we show it back to you. It's holding up a mirror to a reflection that I don't think people knew they had."

Well, not so fast. Extreme views make for great press, but the evidence suggests the issues at stake here are simply more than either a utopian or dystopian worldview can address. As was the case with my daughter and the findings from Gen Y behavioral trends, the true nature of the situation can’t be so easily dismissed with a simple black or white argument.

First of all, the key to judging the true value of any of the new offerings that help people share their public life lies in the purpose and intent of the offering. Just because we can do something (let people share all their private online behaviors in a public way) doesn't mean we should. As much as many social media and news offerings tend to place the user/viewer’s right to know on a pillar above all else, I’m reminded of a concept Tony Golsby-Smith once shared with me during a lecture---we also have a right not to know something. That is, when almost every conceivable media outlet is saturating all available communication channels with a single message (say, the personal and intimate details Charlie Sheen’s life, for instance), then I ought to still retain a right to control and filter this information or ignore it all together in lieu of matters that may be much more relevant to me.

Do I really want to hear more versions of Charlie Sheen’s Tiger Blood, Winning, and Trolls or would I rather ignore this and see why the Wisconsin state GOP decided to swiftly end collective bargaining rights for public servants without debate? Further, if I happened to live next to Charlie Sheen I have as much of a right not to know the personal and intimate details of a neighbor.

Let’s shift the focus now—form personal details of someone else, to personal data about you. The use and sharing of such personal information can serve either positive / altruistic needs (behavior change to achieve a goal or change an unhealthy lifestyle or habit) or serve questionable purposes (using data to reinforce unhealthy behaviors and promote narratives and values for short-term economic gain to the detriment of a person). Sharing is a form of reciprocity—-real reciprocity requires two-way streams of value.

It's our responsibility as people who create new experiences (and their foundational systems, value streams, and incentives) to define value that's sustainable, shared, and transparent. I'm not just talking Web or e-commerce here (those are the proverbial tip of the iceberg), bur rather I'm talking to all those who hold the keys for new business, government, and technology innovation.

At Sears Holdings, I'm part of a Digital Innovation Group that works up, down, and across organizations to define the future of retail. We not only define new experiences, but we drive intentionality through dialogues with leadership about the potential impact new opportunities have. We're creating the future of retail and role retail has, and will have, in the lives of people.

If this sounds interesting, stay tuned--we're just beginning. If this sounds like something you'd like to be part of, contact us www.searsholdings.com


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