Facebook has been playing around with their privacy settings a bit, making users’ formerly private data public by default, and in some cases with no options for hiding the data again. They’ve even brought other sites into the fray. Pandora, for example, will now show your playlist to your Facebook friends unless you opt-out.

This didn’t seem like such a big deal to me. You just update your privacy settings. But then I remembered an episode of The Wonder Years where Becky Slater, Kevin’s ex-girlfriend, tells Kevin’s friends that he made fun of them behind their backs. They’re mad it him for being a jerk. He’s mad at her for violating his trust. Hilarity, tenderness, and narration ensued.

Facebook is the world’s ex-girlfriend.

That’s why everyone is so angry. People trusted Facebook with their secrets. Now that some of those secrets are slipping out, they have no idea what else Facebook will talk about.

This really was inevitable. Facebook’s business model is based on selling your information to advertisers. Mark Zuckerberg has made no secret of his intention to eliminate privacy on Facebook, but I don’t think you ever had any to begin with. Sure, there were all the little rules you could tweak to throw up a customized walled garden around your life, but those walls were built on quicksand. It seems obvious now, but once they have your data they can do anything with it.

Do you have any options for keeping your data private? You could help Diaspora get off the ground,1 then keep your social network data on your own server. That’s not perfect, because I guarantee that there will be bugs that leak data which should be private. You could abandon social networks, stick to your personal blog, and smug your way to Smugtown, but anything you write down could end up in the public record through litigation. Robert Scoble knows first hand:

Remember, I worked at Microsoft. What happened in 2000? The DOJ took all of Microsoft employees’ supposedly private emails and put them into public. So I knew back then that anything I put on a computer could end up on the front page of the New York Times.

We need to start thinking differently about privacy. Zuckerberg is right: privacy is ending. I know, it’s scary, but it’s good for most of us. Tim O’Reilly reminds us that we’re trading our privacy for benefits like convenience, rewards, and security. Our entire lives are already out there. We’ve let the smoke out of the privacy bottle, and it’s not going back in. You can’t have privacy anymore.2 Now you have to be aware of who has your data, and make sure that you get enough value for the data you’re giving up.


  1. This is important anyway. We need to build open infrastructures that aren’t controlled by any company. 

  2. You can have privacy if you never make any permanent recordings, and you’re never in view of any cameras. Good luck!