This is a follow-up post to one I wrote nearly three months ago, Musing About Sharing and Privacy. This time, I’m trying to focus on just one thing. What makes people share. Incidentally, while talking about sharing: if you’re interested in privacy I would strongly recommend you read this post by Danah Boyd and this post by Stowe Boyd (no relation).
I was particularly taken with danah’s Five Things You Must Know About Privacy In A Digital Context, something I’ve had the privilege of hearing danah speak about in person. Here’s an excerpted version:
- We must differentiate between personally identifiable information (PII) and personally embarrassing information (PEI).
- We’re seeing an inversion of defaults when it comes to what’s public and what’s private…. you have to choose to limit access rather than assuming that it won’t spread very far.
- People regularly calculate both what they have to lose and what they have to gain when entering public situations.
- People don’t always make material publicly accessible because they want the world to see it.
- Just because something is publicly accessible does not mean that people want it to be publicized. Making something that is public more public is a violation of privacy.
danah also makes a key comment during her SXSW talk, linked to earlier:
Fundamentally, privacy is about having control over how information flows.
The public/private/secret distinctions that Stowe draws out are also worth noting and considering. danah and stowe, in their different ways, have spent considerable time seeking to explain to others what they’ve learnt and understood about privacy, and I don’t want to undermine any of it. Rather, I want to look at things from a slightly different perspective, trying to figure out why people share.
photo courtesy the Green Children Blog
Nearly a decade ago, I was transfixed by a book called Driven: How Human Nature Shapes Organisations. I have no hesitation in recommending you read it; the book did more for my understanding of post-Maslowian thinking than any other I had read before or since. [And I am so pleased to see that one of the authors of the book, Nitin Nohria, is to become Dean of Harvard Business School from 1 July 2010.
In the book, Nohria and Lawrence make a very simple assertion, summarised below:
Editor’s Note: In Driven: How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices, the authors combine the latest thinking from the biological and social sciences to lay out a new theory on human nature. The idea: We are all influenced and guided by four drives: acquiring, bonding, learning, and defending. In this excerpt, Lawrence and Nohria examine how an organization built around the four-drive theory might look.
We are all influenced and guided by four drives: acquiring, bonding, learning, and defending.
That’s how I look at sharing. Speaking personally, most of the time when I share things (like my thoughts here), I share them because I want to learn. As I share, I make myself vulnerable, and in making myself vulnerable I strengthen bonds with the people I share with. As those bonds strengthen, trust between us grows, and I am less alone, less isolated. Which satisfies my drive to defend when under attack.
All learners are teachers as well, and there may be a sense of acquisition as learning takes place via sharing. So to my warped way of thinking, sharing is one of the mosy natural things for a human being to do: the act of sharing seems to satisfy all four of our core drivers.
Man was born to share.
My thanks to Dieter Drescher for the photograph above
The past few decades have been characterised, at least in part, by the introduction of a plethora of tools that make sharing easier. Tools we call social software or social media and a variety of other names, covering blogs, wikis, instant messaging, community media sites such as YouTube or Flickr or last.fm or blip.fm or the daddy of them all, Wikipedia, social networking sites such as facebook or LinkedIn, news and status update sites such as Twitter, even location signallers such as foursquare or gowalla; without even going into the giant landscape of “vertical” communities like epicurious.
I tend to think of all these things as belonging to one or more of four camps: places where I can share things; places where people can share things with me; tools I can use to share things with others; tools that others can use to share stuff with me.
And all these things are relatively new. So we’ve got to figure out how they work, what they’re good for, what they’re less good for. The only way we’re really going to be able to learn about these things is by using them. And finding out what works, and what doesn’t work. What to share. With whom. How. What to receive from others. Who the others should be.
David Weinberger writes eloquently about the importance of tagging, amongst other things, in Everything is Miscellaneous. Sharing alone is not enough, we have to make what we share easy to consume. So the tools become important.
For the last few years, I’ve been trying out many social sites, learning what makes them tick, how to get value from them, how to create value in them. Many of these services allow you to cross-post to others. Some tools even let you post what you’re saying in one medium on to all others. And by posting stuff all over the place, I’ve been able to learn what people like me to share, what people want me to share. And what they don’t want from me.
Over the years a few truths have emerged:
1. People are different in different electronic communities, and you have to figure out the frequency of information flow that each community feels comfortable about.
2. People are interested in different things you do, and uninterested in many other aspects of what you do. So you have to learn how often a particular community wants to hear from you; your facebook community is different from your flickr community is different from your twitter community is different from your blog community is different from the community you work with every day. I tweet every now and again in bursts. Covering conferences. Cooking. Reading. Listening to music. I have to figure out where each type of tweet should be shared, something I continue to learn about.
3. Everyone is learning about all this, so you’re going to have to subscribe and unsubscribe all over the place, as you figure out what’s useful and what’s not.
While everyone worries about privacy, spend some time thinking about sharing. Think about what you want to share. Why you want to share it. With whom you want to share it.
We’re still in the wild west phase of all this: we’re learning about what we like to hear from others; we’re learning about what others would like to hear from us; and we’r learning about how we want to “control” all this. In the meantime, people who provide the services that let us do all this are trying to figure out how to make money while giving us those services. And everyone’s trying to figure out who ‘owns” what, all during a time when emerging generations are questioning the very concept of ownership. Maybe it’s time everyone re-read Lewis Hyde‘s The Gift.
Some of us, like me, are the experimenters, trying to figure out how to use all this stuff. So when I share that I’m going to a Cat Stevens concert, I’m gratified when someone thanks me for sharing that. Because their partner was a Cat Stevens freak and it made a difference. When I share what I’m cooking for dinner, I was encouraged to use photographs, something I wouldn’t otherwise have done. When I share what I’m listening to, people complained that I was filling up their view, and I had to “turn the noise down”. When I shared my location, my daughter complained that her ex-boyfriend was stalking her through my tweets, so I cut off the Twitter-facebook feed.
These are all just examples. Real, but examples. The truth is that we have a lot to learn. And that is something that happens with anything new.
I had the privilege of meeting Freeman Dyson via his daughter Esther some years ago, at a Flight School event. It may even have been the inaugural one. And there, Freeman was regaling us with talk about what it was like in the heady “nuclear” days of the late 1940s, when they really thought they could use nuclear power to send rockets into space, without any real deep knowledge of the damage that would follow.
And that’s what happening about digital privacy and sharing. We’re learning. And there are going to be mistakes. And there will be hurt. And out of all that new value will emerge. People like danah help us and safeguard us, because they’re looking at some of these issues deeply. People like the Web Science Trust are looking into this. People like the Berkman Center are looking into this. Even people like the World Economic Forum are looking into this. Because it matters.
In the end, it’s what danah says: privacy is about having control over information flows. What goes out of you. What comes into you. You choose. That’s privacy. And sharing.