A web for introverts, privacy gradients and trust

Adam Tinworth draws attention to a blog post on GigaOM about how the social web is great for extroverts but not so good for introverts, whether or not that introversion is a general mindset or specific to the internet. From Kevin Kelleher on GigaOM:

Much less noticeable is another trend: the rise of the web introvert. But while some web introverts might be introverted in the classic sense — that is, uncomfortable in social settings — many of them aren’t shy at all. They are simply averse to having a public presence on the web. And in time, they are going to present a problem for social sites like Facebook and Twitter, whose potential growth will be limited unless they can successfully court them.

Web introversion isn’t a question of technophobia or security concerns. Anyone who has tried to build out their online networks on Facebook knows that there are a lot of people they know in real life that they can’t friend online. Many people who have been involved in technology for years — or who are entirely comfortable shopping at Amazon, paying bills online, buying songs from iTunes — will have nothing to do with social networks. Others see it as a chore necessary for their jobs. Still others have accounts languishing on all the major social networks.

Adam says:

Unless we can find a way to draw these people into the social web – and that probably means more thought around both privacy and data ownership – we’re only ever going to get a subset of a subset of people involved. And that, in turn, will massively limit its potential.

The main issue here is privacy. Many social networks haven’t really give that much thought to how people will emotionally respond to their progression through the site, i.e. along the privacy gradient.

The idea of a privacy gradient comes from architecture and refers to the way that public, common spaces are located by the entrance to a building and as you progress through the building the spaces become more private until you reach the most private ‘inner sanctum’. If you think of a house, then the most public part would be the porch (in the UK, a fully or semi-enclosed space around the front door, in the US, it’s often open or screened). The hallway is common space shared by everyone, and spaces like the kitchen and lounge are semi-private. As you progress deeper into the house you end up at the bedroom (and in some cases, the en-suite) which is the most private part of the house.

Understanding the privacy gradient is important, because when buildings ignore privacy gradients, they feel odd. Think about houses where there’s a bedroom directly off the lounge and how uncomfortable that can make visitors feel. I once had a friend who lived in one of the old tenements near Kings Cross, now torn down. To get to his bedroom and the kitchen you had to walk through his flatmate’s bedroom, a deeply uncomfortable act.

Websites work on the same principles, welcoming people via a publicly visible screen, and progressing into increasingly private spaces as the user’s interactions become more personal. A well developed and carefully considered privacy gradient is essential to social sites – even incredibly simple sites/services like Twitter do it, with the public timeline being like the front porch and the direct message like the bedroom.

Facebook, on the other hand, has gone for a walled garden model, which provides an illusion of security for users: even before they set their own privacy levels, they feel they are in a private space, despite the fact that it is shared by several million others and that information can quite easily leak out of it. Facebook’s recent changes to its privacy settings have made its walled garden a bit more like an old, knot-holed fence, letting people peek in through the holes and see glimpses of what goes on inside. This is problematic because it has exposed information that users used to think was private, blurring further the line between private and public.

The inability to see inside a walled garden can alienate people outside the system, who can’t see what or who is inside and may feel that they are being made unwelcome. This brings to mind certain shops (some Abercrombie and Fitch stores do this), that obscure the windows and ensure that one cannot ‘accidentally’ see inside when the door is opened by creating a shield around the doorway. They also have a privacy gradient internally, with more open public areas at the front and fitting rooms at the back.

As one moves along a privacy gradient, one is also moving along a parallel trust gradient. As you invite me deeper into your house, so you are displaying increasing trust in me. If you only talk to me at your front door and don’t invite me in, you’re displaying (in certain circumstances) a lack of trust, or that I have yet to earn your trust. Letting people move up the trust gradient too quickly can cause all sorts of problems, perhaps resulting in a betrayal of that trust.

The same, again, is true on websites. The more we communicate, the stronger our relationship becomes, the more I trust you, the more of myself I am willing to reveal and share. Different people, of course, feel comfortable in different areas of the trust/privacy gradient, so some people prefer to keep things private and require a lot of communication and relationship building before they are willing to trust someone. Others are happy to plunge in at the deep end, revealing everything about themselves to everyone, newcomer and old friend alike.

Both extremes can have negative repercussions. The shy user may fail to realise full utility of social sites because they cut themselves off from helpful strangers. The extrovert may find themselves swamped with many shallow relationships that they can’t maintain or strengthen and, sometimes, being hurt by people using their trusting nature against them.

What is key, though, is that people understand the repercussions of their behaviour and that their expectations of privacy and trust are met by the site they are using. When websites reveal items that were thought to be private, as Facebook and Twitter have both done, then people’s trust in the site is violated and the social consequences for them as individuals could be dire. Equally, when a website makes people feel as if their interactions are private when they are not, they will fail to understand who can observe them and may make mistakes that they would have avoided if there was no implication of privacy.

What I see in this discussion about web introverts is a reflection of the fact that most social sites have been built for gregarious people, often by gregarious people. The privacy gradients aren’t clear to the outsider, or simply haven’t been thought through in enough detail. Twitter, for example, makes it very easy to accidentally respond to a direct message via SMS with a public message instead of a private direct message: That’s a huge violation of privacy and potentially can be extremely embarrassing.

Until social sites get their act together and start to view the web from the point of view of the web-introvert, considering exactly how their sites embody the privacy gradient, shy people will just stay away. And every time companies like Google make mistakes of the magnitude of Buzz, trust in companies to respect our privacy is whittled away. Personally, I can’t blame people for wanting to keep themselves to themselves. With the social web the way it is, I would never attempt to persuade someone to use it if they felt uncomfortable with it. It’s much more important to respect their privacy.

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