Mark Zuckerberg Doesn’t Understand Privacy or Integrity

Sep 24, 2017 by

Nicholas Grossman –

Mark Zuckerberg Doesn’t Understand Privacy or Integrity Facebook’s vision and the future of human interaction

Writing about how much tech giants influence our lives, Franklin Foer quotes Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg:

The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly. Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.

In response, Foer writes: “of course, that’s both an expression of idealism and an elaborate justification for Facebook’s business model.”

But Zuckerberg’s vision doesn’t strike me as idealistic. It’s dystopian, based on a shallow, overly-simplistic concept of the self. And if Facebook pulls it off, the world — and our individual experiences of it — will be worse.

I Contain Multitudes

Collapsing your many identities into one is an egregious affront to privacy, far worse than tracking your online behavior and profiling you for advertisers. It denies you the choice to manage others’ impressions.

Zuckerberg’s line recalls self-help pablum about “finding your true self,” as if that were a single thing. As if there’s one authentic you, and any time you deviate from that, you are, in his words, exhibiting “a lack of integrity.”

This is different from the laudable idea of self-actualization — figuring out what you want, what you value, and acting accordingly — because it demands a uniformity of behavior that stifles, rather than actualizes.

That doesn’t mean having multiple identities is inherently good. Consider, for example, LGBT people keeping part of themselves hidden due to threats of violence or shunning. But the best approach is somewhere in the huge middle between a forced double life and Zuckerberg’s vision of a single public/private image.

Everyone wears many hats, and there’s nothing wrong with it. I act differently around my wife, parents, friends, boss, colleagues, etc. I don’t curse around my grandmother, because I know she wouldn’t like it (your grandmother may differ). I love talking politics, but keep my opinions to myself around students, because I’m trying to teach them how to think critically, not tell them what to think. Those “images” are different. But they’re all authentically me.

As Walt Whitman put it (in one of my all time favorite lines):

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.

You’re at least a little different depending on who you’re around. Humans are social creatures, and the self is shaped by the other selves with which it interacts. Playing an active role in shaping that is freedom, not a lack of integrity. We all contain multitudes.

These days, most of us have an online persona (probably more than one), in addition to all the offline ones. If you know me only through my writing, you think of me differently than people who know me in real life. I edit here. But neither my edited writing nor my casual conversation is more authentically me.

If Mark says he doesn’t present different images to different people, I don’t believe him. And if he does it less than others, maybe that’s a luxury of owning one of the world’s most valuable companies, which they don’t have.

Facebook and Authenticity

The idea that “having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know” exhibits “a lack of integrity” is especially odd coming from the person who, more than anyone, made online image management a common human experience.

On social media, most people put their best foot forward. They post pictures of themselves looking good, having fun, traveling, and their kids/pets doing something cute. They celebrate successes, issuing press releases for new jobs, kids, homes, achievements. They try to be funny, clever, cool, poignant, profound, and link to things they like, which both shares their passions and communicates their taste.

It’s not all positive, of course. Some share negative experiences or feelings — for self-expression, in pursuit of affirmation, or to show others with similar feelings they’re not alone. But most social media feeds are positive enough that spending a lot of time with them can cause depression.

That’s especially true for teenagers, who are constantly confronted with visual evidence of every social event they didn’t attend.

I don’t think Zuckerberg wants to transform his platform into an unfiltered expression of everyone’s “true” self. It would make the experience worse. Even if it were possible, it’s not going to happen.

Authenticity ≠ Good

Most people curate a positive image on social media, but some go the other direction, and act like assholes. They spend their time aggressively arguing with, denigrating, and insulting others. That’s more common on platforms that allow anonymity, but there’s quite a bit on Facebook too. Something about the distance makes some people more comfortable with name calling and overt bigotry than they would be face-to-face.

One could argue this is them at their most authentic, and that acting like less of an asshole offline exhibits a lack of integrity. But even if that’s true, more assholery is not necessarily what society needs. Especially because societal power structures make assholery less costly for some than others.

Being polite and considerate isn’t inherently inauthentic. It’s just showing respect for others. That’s not natural — it has to be taught — and it can go too far, as with the “language police” of extreme political correctness. But, on balance, society is better for it.

Alt-right favorite Milo Yiannopoulos — who makes his living with performative assholery — likes to argue online trolls are the only people being honest. The implication is that anyone who isn’t harassing people they don’t like is in some way denying their essential humanity.

I reject this. The trolls might be honestly expressing their feelings, but the expression itself is not more authentically human. Quite the opposite. There’s nothing more human than separating ourselves from the animals — consciously changing our behavior to facilitate group success and maximize individual flourishing.

Even if acting like an asshole were the natural state of humans — and that’s questionable, especially regarding the variety of assholery focused on social constructions like race and gender — choosing not to act that way for the betterment of society is also naturally human. Reverting to a more assholish “natural” state doesn’t make us more authentic. Arguably, it makes us less.

Authenticity and Trump

A common observation of Trump’s biggest fans is that they say they like his honesty, even though he lies to them. A lot.

This appears to be a paradox. But it’s not, because by “honest,” they don’t mean tells the truth, they mean says what’s on his mind. In other words, they see him as authentic, telling them what he really thinks, rather than what consultants and speechwriters think people want to hear.

That’s how working class people from West Virginia and Kansas came to believe a New York billionaire is one of them. He expresses similar resentments in similarly unpolished language, and presents a worldview based on similar media sources.

A related phenomenon can be seen in another category of Trump supporters, disaffected young men who mostly interact online. A few years ago, Steve Bannon astutely realized a subset of gamers — most notably the ones who whipped themselves into a sexist frenzy over “Gamergate”— would buy into the idea that assholery=authenticity. To them, it doesn’t matter whether Trump’s telling the truth (about his policies, personal history, etc). What matters is he’s not speaking like a polished politician, pissing off more “respectable” public figures in the process.

Whether Trump’s working class and online fans intended it or not, bigots feel empowered by his election. They see the president’s words and actions as encouragement, and feel more comfortable acting like their authentic selves in public.

When neo-Nazis and white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville, they were deliberately dissolving the distinction between their public and private images. In Zuckerberg’s terms, they were acting with integrity. But I don’t think America is better for it.

World Domination

For a while, I thought Facebook’s ultimate goal was to take over the internet. Instead of opening a browser and logging on to websites, everyone would log on to Facebook and go from there. That would give the company more access to your online behavior, which would increase profits by helping advertisers market products with ever greater precision.

We started to see this when various sites allowed users to log in with Facebook, and when some began using Facebook for comments.

In a sense, this would civilize the internet, ending its Wild West period. Unlike Twitter, Facebook requires individuals to go by their real name, and prohibits one person from owning multiple accounts. They have some issues with enforcement, and the expansion to business accounts, fan pages, etc. has allowed some people to effectively run more than one account. But the more pervasive Facebook became, the more people would be identifiable online.

Pockets of anonymity would surely remain. But they would account for a smaller percentage of internet interaction. That would make people responsible for their online behavior, bringing some order to the chaos (for better or worse).

Zuckerberg’s statement suggests his goal is more expansive: not just taking over the internet (and advertising), but taking over the world.

If you no longer have “a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know,” then your online and offline images become one. Your friends, family, person you knew in high school that you definitely would not be in touch with if it weren’t for Facebook, boss, coworkers, etc. all see the same you. So do strangers.

This started to become an issue a few years ago with reports that companies turned down applicants based on social media posts. Supposedly objectionable content ranged from racist comments to lascivious photos, evidence of drug use, and intoxicated party pictures. In some cases, employers asked for access to applicants’ Facebook pages.

Twitter behavior is inherently public. The default is everyone can see what you post, and you have to take action to block someone from seeing it. It’s hard to fault companies for considering an applicant’s public behavior, because that behavior becomes associated with the business. But Facebook is supposed to be private. You have to accept friend requests, allowing others to see your page. Private behavior isn’t your employer’s business. They don’t own you.

Reports of applicants rejected for social media behavior raised questions of privacy, but also of the increasing tendency to post everything online — to voluntarily live in public, as if everyone is a mini celebrity.

However, as millennials age and become responsible for hiring, they might see drunken college photos on Facebook as so common that they’re irrelevant.

That’s sort of what happened with boomers and drug use, especially marijuana. Back in the day it was scandalous. But it became common enough that few of today’s 60-somethings care that someone smoked pot when they were younger.

We saw this with presidents, going from Reagan and Bush’s zero tolerance “just say no,” to Bill Clinton’s winking “I didn’t inhale,” to George W. Bush’s admitted marijuana use and neither-denied-nor-confirmed allegations regarding cocaine, to Barack Obama’s open admission in Dreams of My Father (published 1995) that he had smoked pot and done a little coke.

Maybe online evidence of youthful indiscretions will follow a similar pattern. Few employers — or voters — will care, as long as it’s in the past.

But Zuckerberg is talking about a societal change much more extensive than allowing potential employers (or advertisers) to review information people voluntarily put online. He’s calling for the public and private spheres to merge. Instead of the current state — in which individuals can cultivate a public image and multiple private images — they’d have one, presented to everybody.

That reduces choice, and would leave everyone wary others are listening, possibly judging.

We’d lose the ability to adjust our behavior based on knowledge of our companions’ beliefs, values, and sense of humor. That variance is one of the best parts of life. And Zuckerberg is wrong that it shows a lack of integrity. What it shows, is respect for others.

As Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) says in Jurassic Park:

Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.

Facebook might eventually be able to deny individuals the ability to present different images to different people.

But it shouldn’t.

If you liked this (or didn’t like it, but found it interesting), check out my next article on Facebook, about the social network’s influence on public information, its role in enabling Russian interference in the 2016 election, and regulatory changes the United States should consider in response.

Source: Mark Zuckerberg Doesn’t Understand Privacy or Integrity

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