In an interview with Bloomberg BusinessWeek on Thursday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg admitted that he thought it was "somewhat of a burden" if you are "always under the pressure of a real identity."
If anyone else had said something so obvious, it would be completely unremarkable. But coming from the same person who once threatened "the age of privacy is over" and having "two identities is an example of a lack of integrity," this is no casual observation. It took him a decade to get to this point. The king of social media is finally recognizing that privacy is not just some cultural relic to be engineered away.
Whether it is a sign of greater maturity or the result of a less militant point of view, it remains to be seen just how serious Zuckerberg is about allowing anonymity across his platform. After all, making the world more "open and connected" isn't about providing a service -- it's about changing the way the world operates; it's about making a culture more acceptable to Facebook, not the other way around. An entire ecosystem of entrepreneurs and marketers has worked to build out his vision by cashing in on our personal information.
However, it seems that Zuckerberg's law of information sharing may have been derailed by a variable that he didn't initially account for: reality.
Facebook has tried to change the way we share online without taking into account how we actually want to behave. For years users have complained about Facebook's aggressive, constantly changing privacy policies but that is still standard practice for the company. Regulators have tried to reign in their advertising practices and use of biometrics, but little has changed in terms of consumer protections. Facebook has become dull in the eyes of its users, but its intention was always to be more useful than cool anyway.
So what has caused this sudden change of heart? In some ways it's been a long time coming. People have naturally become more familiar with social media and the pitfalls that come from over-sharing. We all know somebody that had a job or relationship ruined by the wrong person seeing something that was made public. And with Snowden's revelations on everyone's mind, there is certainly growing concern on what can be done with the information we leave behind everywhere. But there's little evidence these worries have actually led to disconnecting from Facebook en masse.
Instead, it turns out that competitive pressure is what it takes for Facebook to change its behavior. It's no small coincidence that these comments come on the heels of reports that Snapchat rejected an acquisition bid. That app, and the entire crop of ephemeral, privacy preserving services represent an existential threat to a culture of pervasive, non-stop sharing. Facebook recognizes this and wants that data - it's leaders have decided that they are not going to let their futuristic visions get in the way of their bottom line.
Silicon Valley companies will still get rich from monetizing your personal information, but their rhetoric may finally become less tone-deaf.
And that alone may be enough to spark a more nuanced discussion of what users expect from the companies they entrust with their information. We see now that the future of social media isn't necessarily going to be decided by Facebook (or Google). Chris Poole, the founder of Internet discussion forum 4chan and a longtime advocate for anonymity online, wrote that Zuckerberg's comments create an opening and "the time for reimagining online identity has come." Privacy isn't dead as long as it's in demand.
Facebook's growth struggles reveal that it's not enough for a company to control your secrets and shape your relationships, it is has to keep your attention as well. In the technology industry, dominance today is absolutely no guarantee of relevance tomorrow. And that is something that consumers get to decide, not companies.
This article originally appeared on Forbes - Disruption and Democracy. Check out my upcoming book, Identified: How They Are Getting To Know Everything About Us
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