Privacy isn’t Dead. It’s Hiding.

NYTimes article on how technology is shifting the parent-child relationship led punk-anthropologist Danah Boyd to post about “privacy in interstitial spaces,” noting that while teens use new devices and services in ways their parents may not yet comprehend, it simply reflects an age-old desire for privacy and control. Look under the surface and nothing’s changed, so to speak.

While the post was relatively straight forward, a back-and-forth about the nature of privacy between Danah and a commenter caught my attention, particularly when Robert Scoble was quoted from MIX08 as having said, “There is no privacy, and the younger generation doesn’t expect any.” Scoble has a 14-year old in the house so, apparently, he’s come by this observation first-hand.

london eye

I disagree. Privacy isn’t dead. It’s layered. When people point to Facebook, MySpace, texting, etc as evidence that teens have somehow evolved past quaint notions of privacy and live 24/7 on the grid, they somehow ignore that all of us—teens included—have used various versions of ourselves to navigate the public/private continuum. The flickr streams, SuperWall posts, and YouTube video comments are editorialized versions of how we want various communities to see us. They provide the appearance of truth while simultaneously suppressing it. (Which sounds much like how grown-ups have fashioned media, politics, and religion.) What teens share on their Walls or in school bathrooms will forever be a gummy mix of truth, fiction, and gossip. In that context, their privacy is both situational and contextual.

So, to Danah’s post and the Times piece, while privacy appears to be shifting, it’s simply the landscape that moved, not the actors. The desire to control what we say—and when, why, how, and to whom—is timeless and immutable.

Acknowledging that is easy. The hard part is the impact on the everyday interactions between kids and parents. Ubiquitous, networked, and mobile tools have reduced the friction of hiding things (which suits the kids) but not yet increased the efficiency of finding them (which annoys the parents). The simplest solution to this is trust between the actors. But in the absence of that (or the shadowy in-between), parents tend to either over-patrol or dismiss the issue as generational. Neither are particularly good choices.

The middle ground is complex. Or at least “layered.” It includes basic rules on the tools and usage (no, nine-year olds don’t need cellphones), mastering the systems firsthand (why haven’t you learned texting?), cohabitation (put the computer in the kitchen), and learning to decipher, over time, new patterns that distinguish what SHOULD or CAN stay private vs interactions that might be damaging, dangerous, or illegal.

Now excuse, me. I’ve got to review my wiretap transcripts.