When In Doubt, Make It Public

One of my recurring themes has been that we need to get over our loss of privacy. But today, as I was reading Jeff Atwood “Is Email = Efail?” post about the inevitability of email bankruptcy, I clicked through to a post of his from April 2007 entitled “When In Doubt, Make It Public” and in turn to a post by Jason Kottke entitled “Public and permanent“.

There I struck gold. Kottke suggests that a way to come up with a new buisiness model is “to choose web projects is to take something that everyone does with their friends and make it public and permanent.” Here are his examples:

  • Blogger, 1999. Blog posts = public email messages. Instead of “Dear Bob, Check out this movie.” it’s “Dear People I May or May Not Know Who Are Interested in Film Noir, Check out this movie and if you like it, maybe we can be friends.”
  • Twitter, 2006. Twitter = public IM. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that one of the people responsible for Blogger is also responsible for Twitter.
  • Flickr, 2004. Flickr = public photo sharing. Flickr co-founder Caterina Fake said in a recent interview: “When we started the company, there were dozens of other photosharing companies such as Shutterfly, but on those sites there was no such thing as a public photograph — it didn’t even exist as a concept — so the idea of something ‘public’ changed the whole idea of Flickr.”
  • YouTube, 2005. YouTube = public home videos. Bob Saget was onto something.

It’s a pretty compelling argument. Rather than wasting effort in a losing battle to protect the remants of our privacy, let’s embrace the efficiency of public conversation.

By Daniel Tunkelang

High-Class Consultant.

13 replies on “When In Doubt, Make It Public”

Ugh. I’ve got got a better idea: rather than wasting effort on privacy-destroying “businesses” that don’t actually make any money, let’s start giving our computer scientists the ethical training they need to avoid imposing their value systems on the users of the technologies they invent.


Touché about the revenue models or lack thereof, though YouTube’s $100M+ in annual revenue is real, if not quite high enough to justify the $1.65bn Google payed to acquire them.

But I disagree that these software companies are forcing their value systems on users. For example, Twitter makes it easy to make your updates private. But most users prefer not to do so–public conversation is the whole point of blogging and micro-blogging.

The real issue is that most of our privacy to date has been privacy through difficulty–a privacy in practice rather than theory than hinges on inefficient propagation of information. Technology hasn’t changed the theory; it’s changed the practice. We can still keep secrets. But we can’t talk in public spaces and then hope that no one is listening or recording our conversations.


YouTube, Blogger, Flickr, and so on, are just part of the “public infrastructure” of the Web. To a point, so has been Google.

Naturally, public infrastructure is often “take what people did privately and make it public”. You first start collecting books for yourself, and one day you make a public library. You first pave a road from your house to your garden, and one day you decide to pave a road between villages.

What is a fascinating point is that we are building a public infrastructure without governments!

Of course, we are all paying for Google, YouTube and the like, mostly through ads.

Could we build an ad-supported public infrastructure in the real world? Why not? Well. Maybe there would not be enough ads to go around and support all the highways in America.

Building an electronic world is orders of magnitude cheaper now that we have the technology… which makes it easy and even profitable to build it!

This is cool!


Daniel, that is an insightful, if, in retrospect, a jarringly obvious perspective. I suppose I heard the phrase “information infrastructure” so many times during the bubble that I became desensitized to it.

But I do find the wholesale replacement of government-subsidized services by ad-supported ones a bit disturbing. Either way, we are paying, whether through higher taxes or higher prices, and in the latter case we are also paying in the form of attention and the subtler cost that our information may be skewed by conflict of interest with the advertisers.

I’m a fan of models where the price of goods is transparent to the consumer / tax payer, without any hidden costs. Of course, unsubsidized services can’t compete with subsidized ones, especially since the monetary cost of ad-supported services, like tax-supported ones, is effectively a sunk cost for consumers.

I can only hope that technology will obviate today’s advertising models, and that the models that follow will be more transparent to consumers. And, where we decide as a society to subsidize services (e.g., to avoid tragedy of the commons situations where, despite the collective benefit, no individual will want to pay), let’s do it openly through taxes.

To repeat my mantra: information wants to be transparent!


I don’t have a problem with the “public conversation” aspect of these services–as you said, that’s why people use them. What I do have a problem with is that these “public” forums are run by private companies that acquire very detailed information about the people using them–information that is not necessarily consciously being “made public” by those users–and then selling that information for a profit. That is what I meant by privacy-destroying. And because very few users fully understand how these systems work or what information is being collected, they can’t make sensible choices about how much of their privacy they would like to maintain. In any event, I certainly agree with you that moving beyond advertising-supported business models would do a lot to ameliorate the situation.


Ryan, I think we’re agreeing that the heart of the problem is transparency–specifically, transparency to a non-technical audience. When Google disputes that IP addresses are personally identifiable information and AOL exposes personally identifiable search results through a rookie mistake by some of its top researchers, we have a problem.

Still, I think the answer is not to prohibit data collection, but rather to make sure users are informed participants. And market dynamics apply: if informed users don’t want their data being collected, they’ll vote with their virtual feet–and companies will step in to cater to them. Look at how browser privacy has become an widely reported issue in the mainstream media.


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