Crucially, Angwin pursued this option as a last resort. At first, she deliberately muddied her profile by "burying good data (my actual relationships) amidst bad data (people I didn't know)." Alas, the tactic -- which is only one of the many ways to obscure information -- rendered Facebook unusable. Now, Angwin plans on keeping a bare-bones profile. She'll maintain just enough presence to send private messages, review tagged photos, and be easy for readers to find. Others might try similar experiments, perhaps keeping friends, but reducing their communication to banal and innocuous expressions. But, would such disclosures be compelling or sincere enough to retain the technology's utility?
The other unattractive option is for social web users to willingly pay for connectivity with extreme publicity. This privacy-abdicating path is fueled by the sense that "the way to approach Facebook and all other sites on the Web, actually, is to think of them as a public forum, as a place where if you post something, potentially everyone you know and everyone beyond everyone you know will be able to see it." In other words, go this route if you believe privacy is dead, but find social networking too good to miss out on.
Sensible as these choices seem -- especially given the increasingly blurry line between private companies and law enforcement -- the increasingly popular framing shouldn't be accepted as a practical user's guide to social media realism. While we should be attuned to constraints and their consequences, there are at least four problems with conceptualizing the social media user's dilemma as a version of "if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen".
First, abandoning the social web is not a surefire remedy. The efficacy of abandoning social media can be questioned when others are free to share information about you on a platform long after you've left. Even those who have quit the social web have an interest in the preservation of its obscurity.
Second, while abandoning a single social technology might seem easy, this "love it or leave it" strategy -- which demands extreme caution and foresight from users and punishes them for their naivete -- isn't sustainable without great cost in the aggregate. If we look past the consequences of opting out of a specific service (like Facebook), we find a disconcerting and more far-reaching possibility: behavior that justifies a never-ending strategy of abandoning every social technology that threatens privacy -- a can being kicked down the road in perpetuity without us resolving the hard question of whether a satisfying balance between protection and publicity can be found online.
Daniel Solove, the John Marshall Harlan Research Professor of Law at the George Washington University Law School, gets at the problem of scale in Nothing to Hide: The False Tradeoff Between Privacy and Security when he takes the issue to its absurd conclusion in discussing the limited protection of the Fourth Amendment, which also has limited applicability to information shared with others:
So don't use a credit card. Don't have cable. Don't use the Internet. Don't use the phone. Don't have a bank account. Don't go to the hospital. Don't have a job. Don't rent an apartment. Don't subscribe to any magazine or newspapers. Don't do anything that creates a record. In other words, go live like a hermit in a mountain or cabin.
The third problem is that the "just leave" response is predicated on the questionable idea that alternative social technologies will voluntarily protect their new users in areas their competitors did not. To the contrary, social media users might face similar obscurity risks regardless of the medium they choose. Indeed, if your current social network has no obligation to respect the obscurity of your information, what justifies believing other companies will continue to be trustworthy over time? And, what happens if your newly chosen service subsequently raises red flags?