For Everyone's Eyes Only

What does online privacy mean in a world ruled by Xanga and LiveJournal

Loss of privacy on the internet has certainly been a matter of growing concern lately. At Harvard, the impetus may well have been the January discovery by the Crimson that flawed polling software from iCommons could be used to obtain personal information about students online, but in the world at-large concerns ranging from the sanctity of EZ-Pass statements to the privacy policies of the new CharlieCard system for frequent T riders have been levied in an increasingly audible voice.

All this is well and good, and it certainly makes privacy advocates happy to see their cause get some media lip service. There is, however, a competing trend with respect to privacy and the internet—a less intuitive trend, perhaps, but one that I think we’re all exposed to on a far more regular basis: it turns out, for the most part, we’re all dying to throw our privacy out the window entirely.

Consider, for a start, that we all have facebook profiles, in which we readily list mundane details like our hometown (which any tech-savvy 13 year-old could probably find on Google), but also what classes we’re taking, who we’re friends with, our relationship status and sexual orientation, and (gasp) even a selection of our favorite pithy quotes.

Now, you might rationalize your posting this information for the world to see by saying something about how only the close-knit Harvard community can access your profiles. And you’re right: your secrets are safe with me. They’re also probably safe with all 6,500 undergraduates at the College. And the faculty, and the staff, and the students at Harvard’s other schools and divisions, and every single person that has ever graduated from any part of the University—a group which includes such illustrious names as Ted Kaczynsky, though I suppose he doesn’t have too much opportunity to use the internet from prison—not to mention anyone else who manages through some means or another to acquire a harvard.edu email address for a couple hours so they can set up an account.

For some, though, this is still too little information reaching too few ears, and so there are weblogs—detailed summaries of day-to-day life made public, often with groups of complete strangers as followers. On livejournal.com alone, six million subscribers, nearly half of them actively updated, create 22,500 new posts every hour. A cursory search of the front page of Xanga (another weblog service) reveals everything from shopping lists to excruciatingly intimate gory details about bad breakups and equally gory tales of poorly trained puppies. There are other mediums for this sort of thing, as well: at Flickr.com, a popular photo sharing site, users show off baby pictures and snapshots of smiling parents and antsy teenagers standing in front of Mt. Rushmore on family vacations.

Who are these people? For the most part, they’re us: young people (the average age of LiveJournal users is about 19), mostly in high school or college (also interesting is that nearly 70 percent of livejournal users are female—one wonders what Larry Summers would have to say about that?). Our generation is more comfortable with technology than that of our parents, and I imagine it takes a certain comfort level to willfully shout out to the world that you’ve cheated on Johnny and are now dating Clyde.

There are some important ways in which this phenomenon is separable from fears about online privacy. For one, the people who are afraid of hackers getting at their cell phone bills may very well be a totally different group than those with deeply personal public web journals. And all this blogging stuff is completely voluntary—you get to pick which details are out there and which you want to keep to yourself.

Still, it seems worthwhile to stop for a moment and reflect on all of this: If eight or ten years ago you had told the average college student that in the future, millions of people just like them were going to publish startling facts about their lives—essentially, everything from a traditional diary (the kind we used protect with a lock and key)—I think they would have been surprised. Indeed, I think most of us would be surprised to think now about how much information we readily give out with the explicit understanding that it will be made public.

But then, maybe we shouldn’t be. The internet satisfies everyone’s basic need to communicate and to share. It lets anyone that wants reach out and be heard, gives us an outlet for our fears and represents a waiting ear for our troubles. Surely, some people always wanted their own soap opera or a movie about their life, some way to leave their mark on the world. The ability to carve out a private section of cyberspace and render it your own in a personal way is a powerful thing indeed. And as for the rest of us, who are perhaps a little too afraid to really let go (I had a weblog, but I never posted anything to it...), those of us who are admittedly more private people; well, we don’t mind too much. At the very least, it gives us something to do while putting off work on a paper or problem set.

Matthew A. Gline ’06 is a physics concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.