Every year around this time, the social feeds of people who know attendees of the SxSW festival are swarmed by photos, updates and digressions about activities happening in and around Austin's convention center.
This year, the output from individual attendees was at an all time high. Between Twitter, Foursquare, Tumblr and Flickr, there are more venues than ever for those who lean toward oversharing. And not just with techies in Austin. Teens, adults and professionals around the world are increasingly comfortable sharing information online.
But as various talks, panels and discussions during SxSW this year revealed, the shift toward sharing information online by no means suggests that those oversharers are ready to forgo their privacy.
Today in a story on online privacy, The New York Times quoted Maneesha Mithal, associate director of the Federal Trade Commission’s privacy division saying:
“Technology has rendered the conventional definition of personally identifiable information obsolete. You can find out who an individual is without it.”
But at SxSW, privacy issues were far from dead. In her opening keynote remarks, Danah Boyd, Social Media Researcher at Microsoft, made that clear:
"No matter how many times privileged straight white male technology executives tell you privacy is dead, let me tell you, privacy is not dead."
Of course, that's a slight at executives including Google's Eric Schmidt and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, who have both made comments deriding people's reticence to share information online — soon after opening up new default sharing mechanisms with their companies.
As consumers become more comfortable with sharing information online, more companies have tread into the waters of publicizing personal information. Google made a noted misstep in launching its social media effort Google Buzz this year, and Boyd called them out on that fact. (Interestingly, Google has subsequently invited Boyd to speak at its offices on the subject).
But other times, consumer outrage eventually turns into acceptance. When Facebook first created its update stream, users were outraged. But now, over two years later, it has become a trademark Facebook feature.
Speaking at the panel Can The Real-Time Web Be Realized?, Microsoft program manager Dare Obasanjo argued that the tension between consumer and corporate views on privacy will never go away:
"For-profit social web companies’ interests will always be at odds with user privacy, because there’s too much value in harnessing the crowd for things like Twitter’s trending topics and search."
But there are ways to work with consumers, rather than against them. As Clay Shirky put it:
"Sharing information is something we're biased to do and to like doing."
In fact, he pointed out that there's a word "for not sharing if there’s no cost to you — that word is ’spiteful.’”
Companies that work against sharing information — like music labels — are fighting an uphill battle. Meanwhile, companies that try to tap into the public stream for their own gain also have to tread lightly. As Boyd said:
"Just because something is publicly accessible doesn't mean [people] want it to be publicized."
As much as individuals like to share personal information online today, there are still guidelines that they follow in doing so. And ways they want to control the spread of their information. For Boyd:
"Privacy is about having control over how information flows...When people feel as though they don't have control over their environment, they scream privacy foul."
And though consumers are increasingly sharing private information — on sites like Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare — they still expect to know where that content will be seen.
For companies, it can be hard to discern where and when to tap into that information. Says Boyd:
"There's no easy answer. What you'll want today is different than what you'll want tomorrow... You have to work out what people want."
In a mutable environment, that can be difficult. The easiest way to decide if your company can access and play upon personal information is whether people will feel like they are getting something of value back in return. And not something that only your company finds value in.
Of course, many people are going with the try and see method.
"I can't help but notice that more tech companies are thinking it's ok to expose people," says Boyd. "And then back off when people respond negatively."
With the demarcation between public and private always shifting, it's understandable that companies are stumbling in this space. And from Google Buzz to Facebook, they are learning that consumers can often be forgiving of unintenional privacy lapses.
But properly vetting a new service or marketing attempt is important, because once you expose your users's privacy, there's no proof that you'll be able to win back their trust.
Image: Foursquare's Overshare Badge