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Privacy is Cool


What do we do when our behaviors don’t align with our values? What is it that transforms what we know we “should do” into something we’re eager to participate in and proud to flaunt?

These questions are at the core of privacy and security advocacy right now, and they’ve been a part of transforming society in the past. Once fringe movements of the 1970s, healthy eating and environmentalism became big business through the 1990s and 2000s, spawning whole food, slow food, and “go green” trends in the mainstream.

Surely the same can be done for preserving our privacy. What can we do to make privacy cool?

The Disconnect Between Values and Actions

A NYTimes article covers the apparent paradox revealed in a Pew Research survey that found that Americans are concerned about privacy, but don’t act as if they care. The survey found that users want privacy and don’t trust companies or the government to protect it, but they continue to use online services and share (perhaps unmindfully?) their personal information.

A similar disconnect was reported in a recent article in Forbes on findings from online survey firm, SurveyMonkey. According to the survey,

“SurveyMonkey asked respondents in a survey (of course) how concerned they were that retail stores could use their purchase history to determine personal behavior patterns. As you would expect, some people care more than others. 299, or almost 60%, of the 521 respondents were either somewhat concerned or very concerned, with the remaining 40% ranged from neutral to very unconcerned.” Of those who responded, “83% admitted to owning loyalty cards, including 77% of those who were “very concerned” and 87% of those who were “somewhat concerned.”

The irony here should be clear: The same people who claimed they were concerned about companies identifying behavioral patterns were perfectly willing to use a tool explicitly designed to do just that.

Why are we willing to sell out our stated concerns to save money in the check-out line? Perhaps we do so because there’s little social currency in protecting our privacy. Every day people pay a premium for organic foods and hybrid cars in part because of the public statement such a decision makes. What can elevate “I care about my privacy” to the level of “I care about where my food comes from” and “I care about carbon emissions”?

Look to Youth Perspectives on Privacy

Trends and what is considered hip or cool often begin in youth culture, and we might learn a little from how teenagers view privacy and use privacy. While we’ve often dubbed today’s teenagers the oversharing generation, this is a broad simplification of the youth perspective on their personal information. In the article “The Truth About Teenagers, the Internet, and Privacy,” FastCompany looks at a number of experts in the field who dissect the way teenagers think about and use privacy.

For teenagers, restricting broad demographic information from corporations is a relatively low concern. Unlike their adult counterparts, if Facebook knows more about them than the average stranger on the street would, this is hardly cause for alarm. Where teenagers want to manage their privacy is in the arena of their parents and authority figures. Cloaking aspects of their virtual lives is vitally important.

In some ways, teenagers have a more sophisticated understanding of privacy. They recognize that what they broadcast about themselves is part of constructing a sort of public identity. According to researchers, they are careful to shape information shared in their feed in order to fit it with or attract the attention of specific groups or types of people. It isn’t a simple matter of hiding their lives… they’re using information sharing to create “versions” of their life.

The Underground Creates What’s Cool

Niko Sell, CEO of Wickr, a private messaging app, has some suggestions about how to make privacy cool. The idea, according to Sell, is to stop pushing “privacy and security” on people, and instead engage the allure of secrecy, enigma, and exclusivity. When people ask Sell about Wickr, she doesn’t pitch it as a “private and secure” messaging platform… she says spies use it.

The understated and the underground have long been potent ingredients in heightening popularity. Privacy’s appeal may well depend on the idea that only a select number of people should be “in the know” about our lives. We can have a big social network while ensuring there aren’t too many peering into our inner circle. As we know, some things are meant to be private.

Companies who want to promote privacy as a core component of their products or services should tap into this approach. Companies can frame choices around the user’s preference for secrecy and selectivity. Keep these tips in mind:

Tips for making privacy cool:

1. Be creative (use marketing techniques, engage your UX and design teams)

2. Speak to your audience (teens vs. adults)

3. Reframe the conversation: Highlight the beneficial aspects to make privacy alluring and interesting (rather than focusing on scare tactics). Express how savvy users incorporate privacy practices.

4. Be authentic: Demonstrate transparency with clear notice of privacy practices

5. Be accessible (speak in user friendly, understandable language)

Privacy is cool. The meme I use above is a take on Nico Sell’s suggestion to market online privacy more like snowboarding. Hey kids (and adults) privacy is cool, just like extreme sports, jazz, hipsters, Blue Bottle coffee, Public bikes, mixologists, the Serial podcast, Brooklyn.

A simple shift in mindset can help make privacy appealing and actionable – and reduce the disconnect between our values and our actions. If we truly want privacy, let’s act accordingly.

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