Is Mark Zuckerberg the Howard Roark of the web?

“Thousands of years ago, the first man discovered how to make fire. He was probably burned at the stake he had taught his brothers to light. He was considered an evildoer who had dealt with a demon mankind dreaded. But thereafter men had fire to keep them warm, to cook their food, to light their caves. He had left them a gift they had not conceived and he had lifted dardness off the earth. Centuries later, the first man invented the wheel. He was probably torn on the rack he had taught his brothers to build. He was considered a transgressor who ventured into forbidden terrritory. But thereafter, men could travel past any horizon. He had left them a gift they had not conceived and he had opened the roads of the world.”

“That man, the unsubmissive and first, stands in the opening chapter of every legend mankind has recorded about its beginning…”

“Throughout the centuries there were men who took first steps down new roads armed with nothing but their own vision…”

I don’t know Mark Zuckerberg.  I never met him.  I did have fun watching Sarah Lacy’s Mrs. Robinson routine with him live back in ‘08 while at SXSW, but that’s the only time I’ve ever seen him interact in person. 

What I have seen, and what we’ve all seen, is the result of his vision—Facebook.  More and more, it seems clear that the moves the company makes stem from Mark’s own ideals on how people should live and interact with each other—transparently, in the open.  Take this quote from David Kirkpatrick’s soon-to-be-released “The Facebook Effect.”:

“You have one identity… The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly… Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity” – Zuckerberg, 2009

Was growing Facebook as a relatively private, protected place to interact with friends, and then dragging it kicking and screaming out into the light of day, exposing it all in public piece by piece part of some grand plan?  Perhaps… or perhaps they’re just motivated by money and they realize that openly shared data makes for a better business for them. 

Do I like the idea that I signed up for a site and interacted with it based on one set of expectations and then had that “contract” changed on me?  No.  It makes me feel like I was lied to…and lying is wrong. 

But, take a step back for a second.  Just like Howard Roark was arrested for blowing up a building—which is generally the kind of thing you should get arrested for—will we, in the end, judge the end results of Mark’s anti-privacy crusade to be better or worse for society?  If we send Chuck Shumer or the FTC after him, will he wind up testifying one day to something that I can’t necessarily argue with:

We’re better off exposed. 

danah vehemently disagrees:

“Zuckerberg and gang may think that they know what’s best for society, for individuals, but I violently disagree. I think that they know what’s best for the privileged class. And I’m terrified of the consequences that these moves are having for those who don’t live in a lap of luxury. I say this as someone who is privileged, someone who has profited at every turn by being visible. But also as someone who has seen the costs and pushed through the consequences with a lot of help and support. Being publicly visible isn’t always easy, it’s not always fun. And I don’t think that anyone should go through what I’ve gone through without making a choice to do it. So I’m angry. Very angry. Angry that some people aren’t being given that choice, angry that they don’t know what’s going on, angry that it’s become OK in my industry to expose people. I think that it’s high time that we take into consideration those whose lives aren’t nearly as privileged as ours, those who aren’t choosing to take the risks that we take, those who can’t afford to.”

I can’t even begin to relate to the kind of people that danah argues on behalf of the way she can—people seemingly without local emotional support or a near term path to upward mobility.  But, what I find myself thinking is that the least priviledged among us cannot afford to live in public because enough of us that are privilidged can still afford to protect our privacy.  Problems arrive when some of us are public and some of us are not…but if we all are, I have to imagine the playing field would get seriously leveled.  I’d love to think of a less painful way to get there than the way Facebook is playing this now—but I don’t have it—and Zuckerberg is clearly driving the bus now.  We seem to be along for the ride whether we like it or not.  Leaving Facebook now is the equivilient of trying to jump off while it’s in motion…don’t expect to tear yourself from the social fabric and be left unscathed from the fall.

When, I think about privacy, I feel like it’s the kind of thing everyone rallies around, but that I never like where it gets us as a culture.  So much of my frustration with our society these days is the false premise that we’re vastly different from each other—that the broken lives that our fallen heros lead is so vastly different from our own brokenness that they deserve to be burned at the stake for their meandering from the “norm”.  We crucified Bill Clinton for smoking up, when so many us had done just the same—and even more who didn’t only refrained in fear of similar exposure.  We whisper about whether our Supreme Court nominee is gay—because we don’t know.  It’s a secret.  Sure, it’s her secret, and not ours or anyone like Mark Zuckerberg’s to expose—but what if we all just knew where everyone stood and it was all out there.  Would some people be hurt?  Perhaps.  Would it be more likely that, once out there, we’d all just move on from it and not treat it like something that *should* be kept to yourself—as if it’s wrong? 

The truth is, we’re all pretty similar.  We all do the same weird shit in the mirror when we’re in the bathroom.  Few of us are beyond a secret nose pick if it’s our best option for low hanging fruit.  We’re all pretty mortified to wind up alone.  We fantasize about people we shouldn’t and we wish bad things would happen to people we don’t like.  Glass houses people—and if it’s not the nose picking, then it’s some other disgusting habit.  You’ve got something.  Just hope and pray no one catches you… and please… wash your hands regularly. 

A lot of you wish you didn’t drink so much—but dont’ want to say it, because you’ll undoubtedly be the exception.  Trust me.  Being someone who doesn’t drink, you’d be amazed at how many people confide in you that they wish they could stop, too.  I’d like to publish that list of people—because they should all know each other—but I can’t, to “protect” them. 

Does privacy really protect us?  If you keep pictures of your kids off the web, they’ll never have bad things happen to them at the hands of internet pedophiles.  Perhaps, but that doesn’t save them from their little league coach, the school crossing guard, or the screwed up people in your own family that no one likes to or is willing to talk about. 

You know why kids need to keep things from their parents?  Because parents keep things from their kids.  Maybe if there was a little more open dialogue, you wouldn’t need so many closed doors around the house. 

Privacy protects you in the workplace, though.  You wouldn’t want people knowing what you make, for example.  Penelope Trunk writes about this here:

“I mean, who is being protected by secret salaries? Certainly not the employee—the more transparent salaries are, the more accurately an employee can assess his or her value to a company.

You'd think that companies benefit from secret salaries and that's why they keep them secret, but really, if salaries were 100% accurate—perfectly pegged at the employee's worth to the company—then the company would have no problem revealing all salaries.

The only people who benefit from secret salaries is the human resources department. If they make an error, they can hide it. No one will know. And then they can make ten errors. Because no one knows if the secret salaries are hiding one error or one hundred.”

I think Zuckerberg is right—or at least, he’s driving towards the right goal.  Do the ends justify the means?  I don’t know—but I do know that a government and regulatory pile-on to “fix” Facebook’s privacy issues will feel just as wrong as when the Cordlandt Homes was altered from Howard Roark’s original vision.  If Facebook fails to move us all towards a more open, sharing society—I wouldn’t be surprised if the thought of just pulling the plug on the whole thing and just blowing it up crosses Zuckerberg’s mind.