The long era of shouting noisily into the Internet may be at an end.
So much for the era of overshare, the heyday of TMI.
When Google+ first emerged, I scoffed. A social network premised on only sharing certain things with specific groups of friends? Had to fail. The basic idea of the Internet was to share All Things with All People.
But now even Facebook, long the bastion of Intimate Details From People You Barely Know, is giving way.
Maybe it was never quite so bad as they said. The Theoretically Archetypal Facebook Guy Who Tells You What He Ate For Breakfast was, at best, an exaggeration, and at worst, a total fabrication. I have yet, in the near-decade that I’ve spent on Facebook, to hear what anyone has eaten for breakfast. Maybe my friends wake up too late, or eat particularly undramatic cereal, or something.
Facebook was once an undifferentiated mass of sharing. “Hi World,” you yelled, every time you posted a photo, “Here is an unflattering image of me dressed as Jabba the Hutt!”
“Hi World!” you yelled, every time you updated, “Here is a Joke That Will Later Prevent Me From Getting Jobs.”
You listed your Interests and Hobbies in minute detail. You itemized your favorite bands. You joined groups about oxen dying. You let everything hang out. After all, no one was looking. And until they did, what did it matter? It was just one more manifestation of the optimistic fatalistic approach that marks us Millennials. If the consequence comes, it comes. Until then, here are some videos of racist cats!
Maybe it’s age. Or maybe it’s the increasing awareness that people are watching, compiling data, and — worse yet — discovering how to use it. We always knew, in theory, that the Internet was a sort of malevolent elephant — large and unforgetful. But not only does the Internet never forget — don’t believe me, ask the Wayback Machine — but it will try to use the information against you in an ad later. Banquo’s Ghost had nothing on your browser history.
But the pendulum seems to be swinging towards reticence. A survey conducted by graduate students at New York University's Polytechnic Institute found that in June of 2011 53 percent of Facebook users opted to make their friend lists private, in contrast to only 17 percent who did so in May 2010.
In 2011, 33 percent hid their high school name, age, relationship status, and hometowns from public view — a significant increase from the 12 percent who did so the preceding year.
Maybe we’re growing up.
There’s an increasing market for keeping things to yourself — or if not exclusively yourself, to a more carefully tailored group.
Last week, President Obama emerged with an Internet Bill of Rights, a set of guidelines the administration hopes that industry leaders will embrace. Among the rights it aspirationally lists are the right to transparency — know who’s using your data and how it’s being used — the right to “reasonable” limits on the data collected and retained — a tricky term, as Damon Brown at PCWorld pointed out — and the right to expect that your data will be used in a manner consistent with the context in which you provided it — a principle Google+’s new consolidated profiles would violate if Google adoped the guidelines. More transparency about how users’ data is mined and more flexibility for users to decide how much to share is a good, un-creepy business model — it turns out we were only sharing that much about ourselves because we had no other option — but it may take some prodding to achieve.
The age of intentional overshare may be nearing the end of its rope. But excess personal information is still out there.
Skim through a user agreement one time too many, and suddenly you’re getting ads for things you didn’t even know you wanted.
The rights have yet to be codified. Sure, Google has announced its plans to encorporate a Do Not Track option into its browser. “Don’t be Evil” is Google’s famous motto. But “Don’t Be Creepy” is a bit harder, as its plans for Google+ attest.
Target has been discovering this lately.
“Even if you’re following the law,” statistician Andrew Cole noted, “you can do things where people get queasy” — for instance, sending people targeted ads for baby products before they’ve told anyone they’re pregnant.
The New York Times reported in February that Target knows when you’re pregnant almost as soon as you do, resulting in mountainous catalogues of What to Expect When You Don’t Know You’re Expecting. The amount of information that advertisers are able to mine from consumers’ online browsing habits and profiles is absolutely massive, and the clever manipulation of this data results in creepy yet legal incidents like the packages of baby coupons arriving at homes where no babies are anticipated.
Intentional oversharing is on its way out. But unintentional oversharing? It’s just getting started.