Home > musing > What does it mean that our public square is a private place?

What does it mean that our public square is a private place?

I just read this opinion piece written by Jillian York and published by Aljazeera.com. York discusses “How social network policies are changing speech and privacy norms” and she makes the point that there’s a big difference between our legal rights as citizens and the way Facebook has defined its policies, and by extension our “rights” inside Facebook.

So, for example, there’s the question of whether we can show pictures of breastfeeding our children on Facebook. The policy on this has changed – nowadays they say yes, but they used to remove such pictures.

Another example might be more important: whether you can be anonymous. As York points out, Facebook might have an opinion about this, and Zuckerberg seems to – she quotes him as having said “having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity” – and yet their vested interest in this question is related to making sure they’ve accurately targeted you for advertisements.

I want to make the case that the “real-life” version of anonymity in Facebook is really just privacy in the simplest sense.

If I am even half-aware of the extent of the surveillance and tracking that goes on when I log into Facebook under my real name, which I don’t even think I am, then I’d tend to use a separate browser, with cleared cookies, and an anonymous Facebook account in order to do absolutely anything without it being tracked. In other words, anonymity is what it takes to do anything privately on Facebook.

Now, you might argue that I can just not go to Facebook at all if I want to do private things, and I’m sure that’s Facebook position as well. But the truth is, Facebook is the world’s public square. Some enormous fraction of the world visits Facebook at least once a week. Exclusion from this would be a big deal.

In any case, it’s weird that decisions like this, that affect our notions of privacy, are being decided by some dude who’s probably thinking more about ad revenue than anything else, under pressure from shareholders.

Not that it’s a new problem. When I was growing up in Lexington, MA, over the cold winters we’d hang out in the Burlington Mall. It was the public square of its time, and yes it was utterly commercial and private, and of course they excluded anyone who they didn’t like the looks of, with security guards. Even so, they didn’t check ID’s at the door.

Categories: musing
  1. May 3, 2013 at 10:26 am

    The temptation to pass from facilitating social networks to exploiting and manipulating social networks is simply too great in some people.


  2. Leon
    May 3, 2013 at 12:54 pm

    I’d point out that you can almost certainly be tracked even with a separate browser with cleared cookies operating over Tor: http://panopticlick.eff.org/

    I’ve rarely failed to be unique any time I’ve clicked on that.


    • Mark
      May 20, 2013 at 11:31 am

      Very interesting. Thanks. Of course, that unique profile would not necessarily hold true across all of one’s installed browsers.


  3. May 3, 2013 at 6:59 pm

    Facebook is a big deal until it’s not.
    I refuse to have a facebook account because I would rather be anonymous. It costs a bit more to do so but the costs are worth it.


  4. May 4, 2013 at 12:31 pm

    This post motivated me to write a response through the eyes of the sorority president who wrote the profane e-mail rant from last week’s Aunt Pythia column. I needed to look through a community builders eyes before I could see the problem that anonymity poses.

    I argue that anonymity creates fear and destroys or hobbles communities. Every community has different standards of acceptable behavior. The most intimate communities, our families, close friends and small groups often have low standards of behavior but high standards for care and compassion. Profane rants might be acceptable within such groups and not misunderstood.

    These trusting communities make life worth living.

    It’s all too easy for the anonymous whistleblower to destroy the trust by exposing behavior that is easily misconstrued by outsiders. They have no healthy fear of retribution.

    This behavior is becoming sport in our society – even affecting my own workplace. Potentially embarrassing internal department discussions have been surreptitiously recorded and posted on-line. Once that happens, you stop having productive meetings – everyone is afraid of saying something embarrassing and getting called out globally. Just like the sorority president.

    Here’s more:



  5. May 12, 2013 at 11:56 pm

    Am I autistic? What do people do on Facebook? Now and then a friend sends me a link to a Facebook page, so I go look at the pictures and then what? (That is, aside from emailing them back saying what a nice pictures they posted.) Am I missing something? I remember an article which quoted some autistic guy asking what people say to each other with their eyes. I feel like that guy on Facebook. If it’s the public square, the town dump seems to be more engrossing.

    I also haven’t figured out Twitter. There seem to be people who generate lots of postings, but maybe one in twenty is worth reading, and perhaps one in fifty of their links are worth following. Yes, their tweets are all short, so you can read a lot of them in a short time, but it seems to be rather thin gruel. Are there consistently interesting tweeters who just never get mentioned or linked to? Can you find out about them on Facebook or something?


    • May 12, 2013 at 11:57 pm

      Should I asked Aunt Pythia? Feel free to make pythy remarks.

      Also, I should practice subject verb agreement, but well grammar is better than none.


  6. Mark
  1. May 4, 2013 at 11:57 am
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