On being kind to one another

Youth for Human Rights International has a great video up about privacy. The quick summary is: 7th grade lunchtime, young girl writing note to secret crush, bullies take note fold it pass it on to said crush, anticipation builds as crowd goes wild chanting “read it”, crush behaves kindly and returns the note unread to the girl in question.

What I loved about this video was that it captured the inherent social quality of privacy in a setting to which many of us can relate. It has left me wondering how much of privacy depends on social fabric, the degree to which we are simply kind to each other. There was nothing about that situation in which “code” prevented privacy invasion: the data was put down on paper, it was shared, it was available for others to look at. But, the other ultimately behaved with kindness. Nothing prevented him from violating the girl’s privacy, he simply decided not to.

The analogy to the networked world isn’t perfect, at all, but there’s an interesting insight in that video. Notice that the crush had a series of signals to indicate that looking at the note would violate the girl’s privacy: a crowd had gathered and attention was focused on finding out what salacious news the note contained, and the author of the note conveyed through facial expression and body language that she was uncomfortable with, if not fearful of, the prospect that he might read the contents of that note. With these signals, the crush was able to behave kindly. Without them, he may not have known that reading the note would have been unkind.

I’ve been increasingly thinking about this lately, which is why I found the video so striking. How can we build social signals into technology, so that privacy isn’t dependent on a one-size-fits all policy but instead on the social cues we give each other about how we want to be treated? I have some thoughts on this, but I imagine someone somewhere soon is going to get it right and maybe shift the privacy paradigm a bit.

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