So Google Buzz blindsided us. People woke up to a new little icon in their gmail, curiously clicked it, and found themselves once again exposed to the people they communicate with.
Many found they had been nudged in a direction that they didn’t want to go. Status messages, Picasa uploads and what soon amounted to online chats were shared, by default, with nearly every person we’d ever contacted, from our closest friends to that dude we once had an ebay transaction with.
I tend not to worry too much about the privacy stuff, which puts me in line with the younger generation but a little distanced from my peers. But to many people, the problem with Buzz wasn’t just the sharing part, it was the “by default” part. It was the proposition that Google would go ahead and decide who would be privy to your personal information without even bothering to ask you.
It reminded me of something. The notions of nudges and defaults, based in theories of behavioral economics, has influenced a lot of policy decisions recently. For example, in New York City, Mayor Bloomberg initiated calorie labeling at fast food restaurants in hopes of curbing the obesity epidemic and people lashed out this apparent paternalism. The news of an initial study showing labeling might actually increase calorie consumption provided comfort to critics. But theories posited that people grew overconfident about consumption since they had more information, and the more encouraging news emerged that the key was to also affix a line suggesting a 2,000 calorie diet.
In other news, the Obama administration has pushed for automatic enrollment in 401(k) plans. One of the biggest economic mysteries has been why people so often fail to take full advantage of the tax benefits of a 401(k). But recent studies suggested that people were far more likely to maintain a 401(k) if they were enrolled by default, with an option to opt-out, instead of choosing to opt-in. Retirement savings are getting a big boost from this minor default switch.
The point I hope to make with these two stories is that defaults and nudges are good in that they force us to educate ourselves about the issues. Fast food patrons are more cautious when they understand how one meal can easily take up 75% of their daily recommended calories. Workers are more likely to take advantage of 401(k) plans once they learn about the tax savings. The Google Buzz debacle’s silver lining is that it once again forced us to educate ourselves about our online privacy.
Because let’s be honest; we didn’t bother to learn about these privacy issues on our own. Most of us were on Facebook for years before the news broke that they “owned” our photos and information, sparking outrage and forcing changes to the terms of service.
So if Google Buzz’s brief overexposure forced me, and students, and employees, and parents around the world to take a closer look at their privacy policies and educate themselves, I for one don’t mind.