Mark Zuckerberg’s Silver-Spoon Vanguardism

By Dara Lind

The furor over Facebook’s latest changes to its privacy settings has died down over the last week, and I’m a bit dismayed. Sure, as announced by Mark Zuckerberg on Monday (in a Washington Post op-ed clearly more aimed at the legislators who’d hauled him in to testify last week than at his site’s actual users) the settings have now been tweaked to give people “easier control over their information.” But Facebook’s gotten really good at this game by now — the company’s patron saint of customer service is apparently Lucy Van Pelt — and it’s odd that the people who were in an uproar a few weeks ago seem, for the most part, to have been pacified merely by the fact that some concessions are being made, rather than stopping to think about how long they might last.

This is silly. Zuckerberg has always been quite honest about the fact that Facebook will continue to move toward greater publicity with user data. When he’s forced to apologize, as he was in the Post this week, he doesn’t apologize for doing things with users’ information they never wanted to happen — he apologizes that “sometimes we move too fast.”

Zuckerberg seems to think that full publicity is the inevitable future. He said in January that “people have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.” The problem is that actual social science research shows this isn’t true. The Pew Research Center reported this week that (in the words of Web-sociology guru danah boyd) “young adults are more actively engaged in managing what they share online than older adults.” Surely Facebook, if it wanted, could figure out that its line about a youth-driven juggernaut toward publicity isn’t borne out by the data — it’s not like it doesn’t have the user data of hundreds of millions of users at its fingertips. So what gives?

I suspect that while Zuckerberg spins publicity as a social good, he actually believes it’s a moral one. It’s a theme that’s become pretty common among execs of data-collecting, data-publicizing companies: making it so that anything anyone does can be seen by anyone they know is a way of keeping them honest. Check out this quote he gave David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect, in an interview:

“The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly…Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”

Easy for Mark Zuckerberg to say. He’s a white, cisgendered, presumably straight male who went to Exeter and Harvard and has only ever been his own boss. It’s fair to say that he’s been on the short end of a power dynamic much less frequently than the overwhelming majority of his users. The notion that “having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity” is the sentiment of someone who’s never had to code-switch, someone who’s never had to be in the closet for fear of getting kicked out of the house, someone who’s familiar with the world of white-collar “networking” in which bosses are expected to have semi-social bonds with their employees rather than the world of enforced hierarchy in which bosses are on the lookout for off-the-job indiscretions to punish or exploit. For many, many people, having more than one identity isn’t a sign of “lack of integrity” because it’s not even really a personal choice. It’s the only way to survive in a world that isn’t always perfectly willing to accept and respect them for who they are.

This is especially true of the young people who are Facebook’s core users, and who are, as boyd points out, the least likely to be aware of what Facebook is doing with their user data. And Facebook is making no efforts to educate them. It may have finally gotten the message that some people care about privacy, but it’s still assuming that those people are an educated elite. This week’s concessions are great for the people who know about them, but the people whose lives could be materially changed for the worse by having a single identity forced on them may not know.

I really want GLSEN, or another national organization that deals with queer youth issues, to start hounding Facebook loudly — not just for the most recent changes, or the ones before that, but for the insensitivity the company’s philosophy shows for anyone who has to manage their identity to get by. Zuckerberg isn’t the moral vanguard; he’s trying to force users vastly less privileged than he is to accept a set of social norms that need a whole lot of privilege to keep them afloat. And right now, right after Lucy has placed the football back on the ground and everyone’s stopped focusing on the battle that’s just ended, is the perfect time to point out that Facebook isn’t just going too fast but moving in a bad direction.