Hearing Bruce Schneier speak at this year’s RSA Europe conference was a pleasure – especially as I’ve discovered that one of the perks of attending on Gartner’s behalf is that I get to sneak in to the Press Q&A too. As you would expect, both sessions were a rich mine of ideas, comment and sound-bites. I’m not going to try and capture the whole thing, but here are a couple of the key thoughts that really struck me – one from each session.
First: ‘social networking sites normalise the behaviours they want, not the behaviours users would prefer’.
If you’re on a social networking site, and what you see there is that other people are sharing photos, you are more likely to share photos yourself. The impression you form – whether or not it is conscious, and whether or not it reflects the true behaviour of most other users – is that “this is what people are doing, here”. That’s not random: it’s a deliberate strategy on the part of the sites concerned.
One consequence of this is that, as online behaviour begins to change or challenge social norms about things like privacy, those social norms are being steered by entities which, in turn, are driven by a profit motive.
Second: in the Q&A session, we returned to the topic of social networking (among others), when Bruce invited us to imagine a service which intentionally makes itself less appealing to users. Madness, right? Actually, it’s a perfectly rational development in the complex online ecosystem where the users of a service are not actually the customers of the service. Bruce and others have observed that you – the user – are not the customer of ‘free’ services like social networking sites: you are the product they sell to their real customers… the consumers of data about you.
Under those circumstances, there’s a lot the service might do which makes your life as a user slightly less comfortable (one way or another), but which increases the service’s value to its real customers.
The analogy which sprang to my mind was a chair-maker who makes a chair which gives you terrible back-ache. Seemingly ludicrous… but the perfectly rational product of an unholy alliance between the chair-makers and the chiropractors. Many of today’s online privacy problems are rooted in the fact that our online activities are governed by just such alliances – but we can neither see nor influence them.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m just off to do some stretching. My back’s playing up a bit…
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