Asked about growing concerns over internet privacy, Google CEO Eric Schmidt told CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo in 2009, “If you have something you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”
Schmidt's rather obtuse statement is a favorite among people who worry about internet privacy because it's so revealing. Schmidt wants us all to live in public all the time. People should modify their behavior to accommodate the exigencies of “freer” information, not vice versa. Some days it seems we’re happy to oblige.
But this isn’t a bad news column. The recent failure of several fledgling web services that challenged the boundaries of our willingness to live in public indicates we do have our limits, at least for now.
In March, 2011, I wrote a story for The New York Times about what was then a compelling new trend in social media startups. At least three web-based companies had emerged at the time that offered users a means to automatically share what they were up to online with their web-based social networks—a broader, bolder version of the so-called “frictionless sharing” features offered by music-listening applications like Spotify.
“Obviously, now, it’s completely accepted and people who are younger, in particular, just accept it that their lives are completely open,” Paul Jones told me at the time. Jones was a founder of Dscover.me, which shared subscribers’ activity on an individually-approved “white lists” with other users. Founders of similar sites, like Voyurl.com and Sitesimon.com, made similar assessments.
I checked back on three companies I wrote about in 2011 that offered frictionless sharing. All three were kaput.
It was a compelling concept, if slightly frightening, even with safeguards like white lists and black lists. Browsing is a serendipitous activity that takes a lot of us to places we aren’t always proud of going—to do things that, as Schmidt might put it, we shouldn’t be doing. Still, tens of thousands of users were signing up in the early months, founders of these sites told me. Was this the end of private life online, however illusory? Would people be willing expose their behavior like that?
I checked back recently to see how they were doing. All three were kaput.
I got in touch with founders from each of the three now-defunct sites to see whether—in keeping with the spirit of their former companies—they were open to a little public circumspection. None shied away from self-criticism.
“More and more people wanted to see what their friends were doing, but they didn’t want to share themselves.” explained Steven Gutentag, founder of Sitesimon, by phone earlier this week. “It doesn’t really work that way.” He pointed to Facebook’s auto-sharing venture with the Washington Post around that time, which led to a lot more sharing, but made many users uncomfortable.
Why? “It’s not just that I want to share every single article [I read], I want to curate,” Gutentag explained, characterizing what he believed was the user response to Sitesimon. “I want to be known for picking only the best stuff. It makes me look cool and makes me feel cool. And auto-sharing kind of defeats that purpose. It takes away from the fact that maybe in order to find this one nugget of information, I’m actually visiting 400 sites. … And I want it to look effortless.’”
A still from the 1936 film Things to Come, via MoMA's retrospective.
Eric Schmidt’s statement about privacy was glib, puffed-up with hubris, and offensive in its brazenness. But it’s not so shocking in content. Google privacy issues surface all the time—whether the Google Street View Car is stealing our personal information or the company is handing personal data from thousands of user accounts to the federal government each year. Still people keep their Gmail accounts. Privacy has precious little value where it precludes convenience.
Privacy, by contrast, is a post-Enlightenment notion, and a particularly American one. It wants education and cultivation. In the days before Nietzsche declared god dead, the church was the center of civic and private life, the all-seeing eye of god permeated all things. The church, the state that preserved the church, and the family unit were mimetic, earthly manifestations of the idealized, patriarchal order of the universe writ large—Saint Augustine’s “City of God.”Schmidt’s statement seems asynchronous with the way we imagine ourselves in a democracy. But they draw upon much older sentiments. People have thought like Schmidt for a lot longer, historically, than they’ve thought like Thomas Pynchon. Suspicion—a kind of fear— and the deep need to share and connect are basic human instincts. We’re hardwired for both.
Rousseau, too, believed that a society without privacy would be a society with no vice. Diderot believed that an 18th Century trend in furniture that contained secret compartments bespoke an age of disintegrating morals.
Voyurl’s failure (its slogan was “It’s OK to look”) indicates we may find ourselves today pulled between opposing pre- and post-Enlightenment paradigms. Voyurl provided users (and their friends) with data about each other’s browsing histories, but it also provided users with detailed analysis about their own habits so they could learn more about themselves. Leibsohn, one of its founders, took a decidedly activist tone when we spoke for the 2011 Times article. “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.”
Rousseau, too, believed that a society without privacy would be a society with no vice.
It was a good thought, but turned out people didn’t care enough. Innovations like the Nike FuelBand and other “Quantified Self” tools that are health-related and keep our data out of the social sphere are exceptions, Leibsohn noted. Data for its own sake isn’t sexy. “We were probably being a little too hopeful… that the data itself would be compelling enough,” he said. “People don’t really think about privacy until it’s a problem… That activist standpoint wasn’t really resonating with that may people. It still doesn’t today.”
Leibsohn, of Voyurl, and Paul Jones, a founder at Dscover.me, admitted they had overestimated the value of what their services delivered in exchange for opening themselves to greater public scrutiny. “Tens of thousands of users came to our site, trusting us with sharing what they were checking out online, but we didn't return to those users enough utility,” Jones wrote in an email. “By contrast, what apps like Spotify do right are that they are built on top of Facebook and they offer true value to users such as new music discovery.”
People will give up some privacy when they feel they’re getting something of equal or greater value in return. Frictionless sharing as its own end didn’t meet that condition, Jones admitted. We keep using Facebook and Google even though they’re packaging and selling our personal lives because they’re so damned useful. And although we may chafe at the notion that frictionless sharing when it’s out in the open for our friends to see, as it was with sites like Dscover.me, Sitesimon and Voyurl, giving away our privacy seems to matter less when the transaction is hidden or the stakes are guaranteed to be low—like sharing our music tastes on Spotify.
Unsurprisingly, the founders of these companies have since moved on to less meta ventures. Gutentag and Jones have taken to developing web-based companies that serve existing markets with concrete deliverables, not ideas—Gutentag with GetMaid.com, which connects New York City residents and freelance housecleaners, and Jones with AboutLaw.com, which links small business owners with business lawyers. (Leibsohn couldn’t reveal the details about his newest project.)
Their previous failures are encouraging. They tested the mainstream limits of public living and found out there was one.
That’s a lesson for proselytizers like Eric Schmidt. I went online to search “Eric Schmidt” and “If you have something you don’t want anyone to know,” as compound terms in quotation marks—using Google, what else? The search turned up 25.1 million results. People care when you say things like that. They care about their privacy when you pull back the curtain, as Schmidt did, on what they’re giving up.
Perhaps, like King Lear, King Schmidt’s power preempts his ability to think self-critically (I’ve seen no evidence Schmidt ever attempted to clarify that statement). Still, I’m guessing he regrets the choice of phrase. We ought to make sure of it.
Nooscape (pronounced "no escape") is a column about today's techno-scape, and the idea that we are all merging into one massive, weirdo brain thanks to the internet—an phenomenon loosely known as the "noosphere."