“You can always opt out,” said the fellow at the other end of the table, reminding me of that most priceless freedom which the Internet, in all its majesty, has given me, given us, given the people. “If you don’t want to share anything with anyone, hell, why would you join a social network at all?”
And therein lay the small print, the disclosure at the other end of the asterisk. Opting out* is already carrying with it a social stigma, the personal choice to remain behind doors with locks and windows with shutters, to not be One of Us. At the same time, it is the new symbol of American freedom as professed by its right wing, the inalienable right for each of us to exit, to withdraw, to take the door other fools would take: the right to do the wrong thing.
“In most cases…”
“When users first install one of the new Open Graph apps with auto-publishing capabilities, they’re asked for persistent permission to report their activity back to Facebook through a system called frictionless sharing,” reads Facebook’s official description. “They can set the privacy of their shared content to buckets such as ‘public,’ or choose a specific friend list to share with. In most cases, though, users simply choose the default of ‘friends only.'” Isn’t it good to know what the majority of users will do so that you never have to make the wrong choice? If only all voting worked like that.
“From then on, whenever users engage with the app or Facebook-integrated Web site, their activity is published to the home page’s Ticker, their profile or profile Timeline, and in some cases the news feed,” Facebook continues. “Typically, there is no way to preemptively hide or opt out of sharing a specific activity, such as listening to an embarrassing song or reading a controversial news article. Users must go to their profile and manually delete the post, but by then some friends may have already seen the activity in the real-time Ticker.”
Thus far, the discussion about Facebook’s accelerated implementation of this feature has centered around whether it is “ruining sharing,” as CNET’s Molly Wood contends; exploiting sharing, as RWW’s Marshall Kirkpatrick believes; or redefining sharing, as RWW’s Richard MacManus argues. If I may interject a fourth point of view: Since when have we forfeited the right to define sharing for ourselves without either the status or stigma of “opting out?”
Up to now, I haven’t felt the need to “share” with the world what I eat, where I walk, what I listen to or read, on what point of the Earth I stand or sit. It’s nothing personal; as a journalist, I just seem to have this inner feeling that you don’t actually care. One of the skills that comes with journalism is filtering out unimportant information. If I were to write an article about my music listening habits on a day-to-day basis (“On Monday starting at 11:28 a.m. I listened to Joe Bonamassa, followed by Chris Smither, then Diana Krall…”) you would not stick around to read the complete list. You would rightly ask, what kind of conceited maniac shares everything short of his own bowel movements with the general public?
Well, if you would rather I not “share” this information with you in a blog post, then under whose content quota am I obligated to “share” it with you through some social channel? Of course, as Facebook reminds us, “in most cases” other people with more sense than I will share with “friends only.” Explain to me how that makes sense, that the outgoing data feed I would filter for my regular readers’ benefit should remain unfiltered for my friends’.
We used to speak with one another, but now through the convenience of electronics, we can enable a service to do that for us. Or, in the alternative, we may opt out. The point where “sharing” drifts away from pure communication, and toward Aldous Huxley’s searingly prescient vision of thousands of couples simultaneously fornicating in glass houses under spotlights, is what blogger Robert Scoble calls “the Freaky Line.” The ability for Facebook to strategically relocate this line, as it is appearing to do once again with “frictionless sharing,” is described by Scoble as “Zuckerberg’s brilliance.” Through the movement of this line, he continues, “the media comes to us.”
Once we have ceded the responsibility for maintaining our “Freaky Lines” to an outside entity, so that media and other junk can save us from the inconvenience of having to make choices for ourselves, when can we expect those lines to stop being moved on our behalf? Keep in mind that Facebook is actively experimenting with the Internet of Things protocol (MQTT), with creating an exchange mechanism for everyday devices that may be used by members. On the day that RFID-empowered groceries enable me to walk out of the grocery store and pay for them automatically, do I want the contents of my grocery cart to be published on Facebook? What’s my heart rate right now; did you ever wonder? When I try on a pair of jeans, do I want the world to see, “Scott Fulton is trying on a pair of 501s!” When I trip down a public staircase, should my personal feed announce to the world, “ROTF?” When I run out of gas on a highway, should you know the mile marker?
If none of this information coming from me is important to you, then why should the converse be any more valuable? If you would not open your windows and doors to voyeurs hiding in the bushes, why would you illuminate every detail of your life online? When do you decide to opt out, to choose the wrong door, drop out of the club, make the non-preferred choice? When do you exercise the freedom to speak for yourself and not have your life be spoken for you by some bot in the name of targeted advertising? When and where do you start drawing the lines again?