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On Privacy

The Facebook hearings. 🤦

We want social networks with better privacy! OK, but what do we mean by that? At the Facebook hearings, neither side seemed to know. And we need to know what privacy is about for people, in general, to know what’s wrong with Facebook or how to fix it.

Zuckerberg and the politicians—they imagine privacy as if it were a software feature. In particular, they imagine a system has “good privacy” if it’s consensual and configurable; that is, if people explicitly agree to something, and understand what they agree to, that’s somehow “good for privacy”. Even usually-sophisticated-analysts like Zeynep Tufekci have taken this as the definition of privacy.

But it looks very different if you take privacy as a way of living, rather than a software feature.


Imagine you’re at a party, confiding something to a good friend. A new person joins. Someone you don’t know. Will you continue with your friend? Do you trust the new person, and fold them into the conversation? Do you test them first — asking them some questions, checking if they’re the type of person with which you can be intimate, like with your friend? Or do you change the topic to one less personal?

This is the story of someone trying to live privately. Which we can define as the following:

Living Privately. — Building and maintaining a sense of what to show in each social environment. — Discovering and creating new environments in which we can show more of ourselves. — Assessing where you can grow new parts of yourself which aren’t (yet) for public display.

This touches every aspect of human life: when you’re starting music lessons, you don’t want to perform in front of everyone, but it’s nice to have a safe space and some feedback. Similarly, if you’re coming out as gay. You’ve got to start somewhere.


By this definition, it takes a lot to design a social environment that supports privacy. It requires much more than the public/private toggles or the clear agreements which Zuck and the lawmakers imagine.

Consider: When you are deciding whether to trust a new person, what information do you need? Do you decide to trust someone interactively? What kind of social interaction helps you decide quickly? How do you test a new person? In what circumstances do people show themselves to be good listeners for your more private thoughts, goals, and values?

Facebook is far from being a good place for people to live with privacy. Here are some things that might need to change:

  • On News Feed, you don’t know who you’re talking to, until after you post.
  • With new friends, or if a stranger is tagged in a post, there’s no easy way to scope out this new person.
  • Your audience on Facebook tends to be an unusual, disconnected mass of friends, acquaintances and strangers.
  • Unlike in real life, there's no way to know online whether someone has dropped everything and given you their full attention.

These are all examples of what we can call structural features of social systems. Depending on how these features work, it gets harder or easier for us to socialize in the ways we want. Here’s a longer list of features to look at:

From the HSC1 Curriculum

But these things aren’t what most Congresspeople or Facebook execs are taking about…yet.


There are at least a few designers at Facebook who understand this. I’ve met them in my workshops, where we learn how to think about human values like privacy. We learn what the difficult parts of living by these values are, and how social environments can make these difficulties worse.

These people could make Facebook better for living with privacy.

And I believe that eventually these people will be running things – because the public will keep getting angry until the designs get better.

In the long run, successful social networks will be those with designers that understand our values—how we want to relate with each other—and who understand the challenges of social life in depth. Only if companies put these people at the top, will they have a chance.