Why we share: a sideways look at privacy

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.

It didn’t happen. We learnt about the impact of that kind of radioactive fallout in time. Not in time for Hiroshima or Nagasaki, tragically, but we learnt.

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.

15 thoughts on “Why we share: a sideways look at privacy”

  1. JP, I do think we fulfill a need for significance in sharing as well. The Dieter Drescher photo you included of such an audience of humanity illustrates how small we are as individuals in this world, and no one wants to be insignificant and feel that small, or worse, invisible. Sharing is part of feeling worthy as a part of the whole, having a contribution, and knowing you can give it to others without losing it as it grounds you in self-confidence.

    I am not familiar with the work you reference, from Driven: How Human Nature Shapes Organisations, and wonder how that need for our significance may have been mentioned in those four drivers, if at all?

    I also appreciate what you have said here about learning and teaching being so connected.

  2. What an elegant and well thought out post. Normally, I don't take the time to read RT (return tweet) links that send me to another person's blog because I figure if I wanted to know you or about you, I would have been following you already. That's not intended to be as snarky as that sounds. It's just that there's a lot of “noise” out there and I've found I do better with social media when I let myself discover rather than blindly follow.

    This time? Well, I started following this guy named, Chris Brogan, on Twitter after hearing him speak at a conference in my city a few weeks ago. He was saying the same things I had been thinking about for a few years but only saw a handful of people really grasp and apply to this new world.

    Listening to him made me feel like I wasn't the only one tilting at windmills and so when I would see someone respond to his tweets, I would take the time to listen, because I was pretty sure I'd end up learning more than I even thought I wanted to learn.

    This post and the links you provided? Well, let's just say that it resonates in all the good and right and true ways, that have kept me plugged in these last five years. This post reminds me that you don't always have to have all the answers, you don't always have to get it “right” the first time, but, if you really want to be a part of something, then you have to at least get in the game and try.

    Thanks for taking the time to write it. I appreciate it.

    Leanne :)

  3. Lovely post as usual. You do have a way with words, you say what many of us think. Thank you for sharing. And caring.

  4. This is a rich and context specific area of thought. The majority of public discussion is still stuck with a binary view of the issue which in no case captures the granularity and richness of the scale of 'open' to 'closed' sets of information. Anything that helps bring out the finer detail for further discussion is time well spent – thanks for your post.

    Couple of things strike me:
    If there are going to be mistakes along the learning curve then for those with a lower risk appetite might prefer not to publish – it's like toothpaste, once you squeeze it out of the tube it's bloody difficult to get it back in. That's obviously their risk based choice. But what about the opportunity cost, and more importantly what about the reward? It's far too easy for folk to wave their hands around and talk about risk without ever bringing the reward counterbalance into the conversation.

    Less hyperbole and more considered debate and information around public policy regarding the real dangers of sharing information online would be really appreciated. Can't help but feel that there's kind of a moral social panic at the moment.

    As for the public policy perspective when will 'security' policies designed for behemoth, static environments be ditched? They no longer work in what is quite a radically different world.

  5. Having recently been on the damaged end of an over zealous share by an particularly arrogant individual, this post of yours has given me both insight and a rather warm fuzzy sense of comfort. There are those of us who can differentiate, who can understand causal and consequential effect and that do take responsibility for what we “put out there”. Sadly though, the bulk of the social networking populace assume that the internet gives them some divine veil of anonymity and have no concept of the fallout that their stupidity generates. I remember reading Orwell 1984 (in 1984 ironically) for my A levels with abject horror. The idea of some nameless faceless “Big Brother” inspecting my every thought and action was disturbing to say the least and yet here we are 26 years later volunteering ourselves daily for scrutiny by whomever cares to take a peek. Despite myself, the urge to share is compelling!
    How right you are then to summarise; that it is about input and output control. In light of the plethora of social networking anyway, this must, as we learn, translate to control on an emotional level and more EQ in this world can never be a bad thing.
    Thank you JP for your eloquence and insight.

  6. @rosa I’d strongly recommend you read Nohria and Lawrence. What they have to say about the drive to bond may well resonate with your sense of needing “significance”.
    @leanne thanks for the feedback. glad you liked the post. @chrisbrogan is a good guy, a must-read. You should take a look at Trust Agents if you haven’t already done so.
    @cyberdoyle as always I appreciate the feedback. there’s no point my sharing something if it doesn’t make someone think about something, perhaps enough to say something back. and through that conversation the learning-teaching cycle gains momentum. My maxim: All teachers are learners. All learners are teachers.

  7. @duncan whenever we want to change anything in a digital world, there is a tendency for people to polarise. And sensationalise. Which doesn’t help us learn at the rate we would otherwise be able to learn at. But learn we will.

    @philippa always nice to hear from you, Philippa. Glad to know you’re well. Good to see you here.

  8. @dan I’m not sure the adult-kids distinction is valid. I think of the millenials as people born after 1982: the eldest amongst them are approaching thirty. they are adults. I think we need to be listening to them, not telling them what to do. danah boyd is herself only 32, almost a millenial. i was born in the fifties. what gives my generation the right to decide what’s right about transparency or sharing. we have no track record. yes we need to safeguard our pre-teen children. I do that by making sure my youngest has to wait to join SNS, by making sure she understands about passwords, about identity, by making sure there are safeguards on her mac to do with where she can go and what she can view. safeguards, not draconian measures.

    @tony you’re spot on. conventions will emerge. but things will stay messy while that happens.

  9. This is a beautiful post. It made my Sunday.

    The quote from Danah Boyd you reference on privacy reminds me of some talks I was at years back where IBM's Bob Blakley argued that privacy is about preserving an option to lie. I think Danah Boyd's emphasis on information flow is more direct. The option to lie, when exercised in a privacy-preserving context, serves a wish to control information flow. So a lie in a privacy context is a speech act in Austin's sense, signaling “don't go there”, i.e., it's not a proposition in its context. It's an intermediary firewall.

    On sharing, I completely agree with your points. I'd only add, tagging is unlikely to be the end point solution for classification and organization. It is more likely that people will signal that they follow a larger group of well-designed, mutually reinforcing conventions to be developed now and in the future. Once these conventions are laid out, ala orthodoxy, people will be empowered to say not only, you may know what I mean, but much further, you really know what I mean, because we know what we mean, because we share in the tradition.

    Best wishes.

  10. Leonard Sax of “Girls on the Edge” quotes Emily Nussbaum as follows: “we are in the sticky center of a vast psychological experiment, one that has only just begun to show results … it's hard to gauge the effects of a drug while you're still taking it”. He goes on to write “we're going to learn the hard way what happens when kids are allowed to immerse themselves in this technology before their sense of self has had a chance to form”.

    Finally, Sax states “adult guidance is essential”.

    “This technology” is referencing social media, particularly the sharing that is going on within Facebook, Twitter, MySpace et al.

    My point? Whilst I agree we are all trying to sort out how much to share, where to share it, and the implicit or explicit benefit of doing so (as the giver and/or as the receiver) I believe (as does Sax) that it's our duty as adults in this nascent field to also establish proper 'rules of engagement' such that our children have appropriate role models and understand more so what is acceptable terms of use.

    We, the adults, are figuring levels of appropriateness in parallel with our children … who, for the most part, don't yet have the cognitive ability to balance the risks and benefits. (the area of the brain known as dorsolateral prefrontal cortex)

    JP – how do we learn, make mistakes, etc. while ensuring we're not mucking up the brains and lives of our adolescent, pre-teen and teenaged children? Your thoughts?

  11. When I ask myself a question about whether the human mind can accommodate “infinite sharing” the answer is obviously no. Yet when I ask whether the shareable universe can accommodate “infinite sharing”, the answer is first beyond my imagination capability but there is a systems limitation, though this storage level is astronomical.

    I then ask myself whether as a new born baby to this world whether my first instinct was sharing? I came to the answer that “touch” involved exploring. It is only when I went through the various systems of development, cultivation and understanding that I came to a level of being which represents my own capacity to understand what it is we share.

    What exploring what we share means to me is then my own capacity to link the growing touchpoints of information with my own inner life calling. At some point I presume that I can become suffocated or drowned in an ocean of sharing, unless I am the captain of my own destiny and I have also built a ship of life which has an enhanced destination.

    I recognize that I am not well read and I have mostly circumvented the education process that others would deem as a part of the unwritten contract with societal forms and ways. So I marvel not at the efficiencies or the deficiencies but that we have reached such a place which can enable us to ask ourselves why we share.

    If the answer to why we share is also infinite, then it is in parallel with the emergent possibilities in this new ocean of sharing. So then there is no one answer to why we share other than the one answer that is emergent within us, because we were individually born with that answer. That is presumably what our individual life is all about.

    So I accord with this idea that this is learning, that this is discovery but I am not too sure whether we are new borns to this new way of life or adults caught up in all that we already know?

    That I am not an organic vessel filled with knowledge may be a benefit because I have less “unlearning” to do”. Yet I possess no answer to the way we should proceed in this environment but only the awareness that this is a shared space, a space which like the universe is constantly expanding, constantly moving outwards, yet we talk of sharing in tribal ways which means we gather around a few, rather than marvel at the many.

    My capacity to share in this space is the ability to conceive a world that is the size of six billion people. It is then a re-conception of self, and the meaning of “sharing” means sharing a common space, but it does not mean (to me at least) the sharing of a personal life. That is what privacy means to me.

    I do not know the answer to the question 'What is Sharing?” but I know that if this is freedom rather than enslavement, it is a wonderful opening to the future, something that returns me to the state I used to be, a new born with the opportunity to experience new life.

    Beyond what I have shared here as my thinking out aloud, I really don't know that much.


  12. Don't disagree at all mate. I'm speaking more to the iGen, not Millennials.

    As we (Silent, Boom, GenX and Millennials) are sorting what's appropriate in terms of 'sharing', we have the iGen coming up (where the oldest are in the 14-17 age range – depending what definition you're reading) … and it's these 'kids' I'm extremely worried about. I wonder if this comes up in the “School of Everything”? My wife (Director of a Senior School – ages 13-18) and I are both “2.0 GenX parents”, but are abhored by what's going on in this demographic related to “2.0 sharing”.

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