” Do Social Networks Bring the End of Privacy ?” Scientific American asked in September. The answer provided was pretty much “yes.” Over at the New York Times , my friend Tim Lee explains why this question-and the division it implies, of a privacy-rich pre-social networking past, and a voyeuristic dystopic present-is hopelessly muddled . “People are used to dividing the world into broadcast media (television, newspapers) and point-to-point communication (the telephone, face-to-face communication),” he explains. Concerned onlookers tend to put social networking sites in the first category, as if everyone were sharing their status updates via a major television network rather than with a vetted group of confidants. Newspapers and television do not allow you the luxury of selecting your audience, individual by individual; Facebook does.
In Tim’s telling, social networking sites represent the advancement of Internet-related privacy rather than its demise. The early Internet was a less nuanced, glaringly public forum where sharing information did largely mean sharing it with anyone who cared to look. I wouldn’t have known what it meant, back when I was tooling around Prodigy in 1995, to “untag a photo” or defriend an oversharing acquaintance. We’re constantly told that we lack social conventions for a digital age. It’s easy to forget how rapidly technology has adapted to pre-existing social conventions, providing users with more and more tools to reproduce the sense of control they have in a traditional conversation.