Harvard Business Review

Privacy is a Luxury You Don't Have


Posted on Harvard Business Review: August 5, 2011 10:58 AM

I remember my first taste of social networking—a 2004 invitation to join Friendster. I declined, traumatized at the thought that people I didn’t know would see information about me (the point of the site, which I deemed quite suspicious, was to help connect you with friends-of-friends).

Fast forward to the spring of 2006, when I was teaching a course at Emerson College. The previous year, Facebook had spread from Harvard to campuses across the country, and my students pestered me to join. And — proving the supremacy of word-of-mouth marketing—while I could resist my lone friend two years before, I couldn’t turn down a classroom of 25 pleading college students. I relented, and my "social networking platform" was launched.

Today—like everyone else—I’m on the site nearly daily, and keep tabs (as best I can) on 1600 friends. But, on a recent trip to speak at a university in Switzerland, I was reminded that Gen Y social media skeptics do exist. After my talk (about online personal branding), students in their teens and 20s kept coming up to me with questions, incredulous that Americans would so willingly share personal details about their lives with God-knows-who. (One 2010 study showed Americans spend dramatically more time than the Swiss—two extra hours per day—on social media sites). Wasn’t it crazy to let colleagues and bosses see so much about us, they wondered? Or—even worse—did we have to resort to self-censorship to craft a "perfect" image?

Privacy is a value that runs deep in Swiss culture—after all, it’s been the key to success for generations of Zurich bankers. But, as I counseled them (and would say to any American Luddites who asked), privacy is a luxury you no longer have. From a professional perspective, the opportunity cost is just too great.

Avoiding personal branding disasters and ensuring your contacts see a consistent, presentable image of you does require the hassle of "curation." For some, this means a detailed social media strategy; for others, it translates to "just don’t post photos of the keg party". But for most people, at least in the U.S., making the effort isn’t a choice anymore—we’ve reached a tipping point where eschewing social networking means severely limiting your connections and cultural literacy.

Participating in social media may still look like a choice to the Swiss students I spoke with—just as I felt it was a choice I could decline back in 2004. But in an ever-more connected era, it’s likely that illusion will rapidly give way to an unspoken mandate to engage. Hats off to the civil libertarians standing up for (aspects of) privacy—regulations about what information about us Mark Zuckerberg can hawk, appropriate default settings, and the like. But in a broader sense, we’ve already made the trade: if you’re hunting for a job, investors, connections, or simply trying to track the Zeitgeist, you just can’t compete if you’re obsessing about privacy.

So—do you agree that privacy is dead? Or is there a way to make it work in the era of social networking?

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Dorie Clark is a marketing strategy consultant for clients including Google, Yale University, and the National Park Service. Read her blog here or follow her on twitter.

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