The evolution of privacy

Granted, this is not on the topic that I intend to be on, but it’s something that has been preoccupying me this year. I’ve been working on a talk about Managing Identity in Social Networks. A big part of managing identity is managing privacy. From the NYTimes article yesterday, “You’re Leaving a Digital Trail. But What About Privacy?”:

For most of human history, people have lived in small tribes where everything they did was known by everyone they knew. In some sense we’re becoming a global village. Privacy may turn out to have become an anomaly. –Thomas W. Malone, the director of the M.I.T. Center for Collective Intelligence

First, I find this idea of the “tribe” fascinating and very tangible. Growing up in a Southern Gothic family, the idea of the tribe is everpresent. Moving to Boston for fifteen years stretched the bounds of the tribe. But then, of course, I’ve moved back to a small Southern town a half-hour from much of my family, working ten+ hours a week on a fairly public reference desk in the University that makes up more than half of the town’s population.

And now I find myself creating tribes of my own. Twitter is probably the simplest online example. A constant, comforting stream of information about people I find interesting. Today I found myself worrying about a tweep who cut his eye over the weekend but still was trying to do his live podcast tonight. And considering what kind of tea a colleague brought to work that made her so happy. Or following the disappointment of another tweep who had worked all weekend on pathfinders and a workshop, only to find they didn’t match expectations. I learned about Oscar Wilde Day and enjoyed the Wildean quotes that came across my Twitter feed. I even had a tiny stab of disappointment as someone whose tweets I enjoy decided to stop following mine today (via the tribe-management tool from And as much as I enjoy the tribe I’ve made (along with the news streams I’ve created), I also like feeling responsible for my own contribution.

Facebook is a broader, more complex example. A meta-tribe. (Oh how I love anything meta.) It contains my work tribe, my tribe of library colleagues from across the country, a tribe of friends from the community theater, even a tribe of folks from media and PR around Mississippi who are interested in Social Media. For me, Facebook is a whole world of tribes, and all of them becoming more tightly woven, and occasionally crossing borders. And then my original tribe, the Southern Gothic Family Tribe, is on Facebook in Full Force. In the last two months, I’ve found out via Facebook about three engagements, a birth, and a family reunion–and these are first cousins, aunts and uncles, not long lost relatives. My 3-yr-old nephew’s abominable-snowman-dance graced my Facebook Wall during Christmas.

To match this tribal power, Facebook has developed complex privacy tools. So complex that I’ve had a hard time figuring out what they actually do. And I’ve been teaching classes about how to use them. The first step is to identify your tribes (FB calls them “friend lists”). Then you use these lists to allow each group to have varying levels of access to your information. Without these controls, it is as though you are suddenly born into a world complete with all the normal complex social connections and relationships, and everyone is in one big auditorium. Now try to manage your identity.

So…that’s what I’ve been thinking about.

Amanda Clay Powers


  1. I don’t mean to discredit what I consider to be a rather brilliantly necessary blog about emerging technology, and more importantly, your professional impressions of such a journey’s undertaking (which I find very informative) by leaving my comment, but I’d love to learn more about this “roommate.”

  2. I will dedicate an incredibly detailed blog to said brilliant roommate. I believe it will focus on the book of poetry of his that I recently edited. So back off.

    Tribalism–a point has been made (off blog, sadly), do you have to be born into a tribe? What freedoms do we have in creating tribes. Is the digital tribe fallacious?

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