The XX Factor

How Facebook Saved Privacy

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.