B.J. Mendelson appears on Chicago’s WGN to talk “The End of Privacy” (Full Transcript)

(The following is the full transcript from my appearance on Chicago’s WGN radio station. You can listen to my awesome interview with Amy Guth here. I come on at the 27-minute mark. The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.)

Amy Guth: 720 WGN. Hey there, it’s Amy Guth and this is the Saturday Night Special. We’re talking now with author B.J. Mendelson. He wrote one book called, Social Media is Bullshit. And he’s written another one called, The End of Privacy. And tonight, as we’re talking about privacy in our digital world, and all the things that that conjures up, I could not miss a conversation with him. So, please welcome to the program, B.J. Mendelson.

B.J. Mendelson: Thank you so much for having me, it’s a pleasure.

Amy Guth: Well, I’m thrilled that you’re taking the time to talk with us today about this really important topic. So, a lot of times when we talk about privacy, I think we’re just kind of automatically wired to just say, “Oh, privacy’s good. We need privacy, and it must be bad if we don’t have it.” But sometimes we don’t really take the time to drill into what it is we’re talking about and what things we are keeping private and things like that when we’re on this subject. So, kinda talk us through that and tell us a bit about your latest book.

B.J. Mendelson: Yeah, I think the big takeaway from the new book is that there’s no privacy. Not since 1917 during the First World War. We may think we have privacy, but even people who, let’s say they’re in the middle of a cabin in a woods in Montana or something, Experian or Transunion or even Facebook probably has a data file on them. And they’re selling that information to turn a profit. So, you might think that your stuff is safe, or that you’ve never been a victim of a hack, but you have been. And so, that’s really the big takeaway, is that, this is something that now affects all of us. And to think that we’re safe somehow, that’s not how the world actually is today.
Amy Guth: Well, and you bring up a really interesting point, about, you know, that odds are, your data has been compromised at some point. We think about our data being compromised as immediately that’s gonna trigger a series of people taking out a mortgage in our names, and doing all these things, and identity fraud, and it being really huge and impactful. But a lot of times that takes much smaller forms we don’t even realize. Or, nothing necessarily will happen to us, just because our data is exposed. So, kind of talk us through that a bit, cause I think that part is one area we tend to gloss over and panic about, just because of what’s possible, but often don’t look at what probably happens most often.

B.J. Mendelson: Sure. I think the big thing, and I talk about this in the End of Privacy, is that your experience online … Like, if you’re wondering, how does this even affect me, your experience online is completely tailored to data these companies these have and is selling about you. You might think, “Alright, well, why do I suffer from that?”

First, you’re not getting any of the billions and billions of dollars that your data is generating for these companies. So, I’m a big believer, you should be getting a cut of that money, and we’re kinda being ripped off. But the second, more important thing is that we’re really missing out on the full promise of the internet, right. Like, back in like … I’m a child of the 90s, so I remember people calling it, like, the information superhighway and it’s gonna bring you all these amazing things. But now, everything is so custom tailored that you just don’t really get outside your bubble. And because of that, you’re not getting exposed to ideas, you’re not getting exposed to different opportunities that might come your way. And more frighteningly, the data out there can be used against you in ways you may never realize.

For example, you might go to a bank and apply for, let’s say a loan or something, and they’re gonna go online and look at the data they’ve purchased from all these different companies, and denies you. And they don’t have to tell you. There’s nothing on the books right now that says, “Hey, an algorithm says that based on your data, we’re gonna deny you the loan.” Like, they can just arbitrarily do it. And then if you look at things like teachers and test scores, I mean, there’s a lot of instances where, the data that’s processed is completely arbitrary. And it’s just pulled down from a bunch of different sources, and the computer spat it out, all from the information that’s out there on the web. So, even though you don’t think it impacts you, every time you create more information, it creates opportunity for information to be used against you. Even if it’s something very minor in a subtle way, or if it’s a major way.

Amy Guth: And, often I think, we tend to think about this as well. “I just won’t share anything that personal.” And I know I’ve given that advice to people before of just, you know, you don’t have to share. You don’t have to over share. You don’t have to say. Decide what’s private for you. But there is a different side to that, there is a much deeper and perhaps sinister side to that, because it’s no longer just a matter of choosing not to share say, your spouse’s name or your kid’s names or your address or your salary. It’s much deeper.

B.J. Mendelson: So, a lot of people don’t realize this. But, if you go and you’re looking for an apartment, and you find this great apartment in Chicago. Your landlord, or the company that owns the building, can look at all the data that’s out there on you as well, and render his decision based on that and never tell you. Like, there is no obligation for them to be like, “Oh yeah, well, you know, we were denying you this apartment, because of the data we collected.” So like, that’s the most immediate thing. There’s other instances where you could be denied insurance. Your insurance premiums might go up, if you have a condition that the company has learned about in collecting and gathering information about you.

It’s a little frightening. These things happen all the time. And the most annoying one probably that you’ve encountered and people have no idea, is that Amazon adjusts price, based on your browser activity, and the items that you’ve been looking at. So, there’s instances where you might look at an item, and it’s more expensive than it might be, if your friend is looking at the same item. And this stuff happens all the time, and there’s no protection for it.

Amy Guth: That is very irritating. I think we hear about that happening a lot with airlines. You know, there’s always that advice on travel sites to clear your browser history and then go look at ticket prices because perhaps they might change. But irritating that, that perhaps, is applying to the toilet paper and paper towels that we’re buying on Amazon and those kind of things too. So, but it does beg the question, you know, I think there’s kind of two camps here, because we look at the recent data breach with Equifax, which is, I think, part of the frustration with that is that’s something we can’t opt in or out of. That’s there whether we want it not collecting our data. As opposed to things like Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, all these big tech giants that are technically optional, although it’s very difficult to navigate without them.

B.J. Mendelson: Well, I would argue that they’re not optional at all. There’s a legal term that I hear floating around, it’s contract by adhesion, which basically means you don’t have the option to not use this platform. To opt-out of their data collection and still use it. So, for example, if I don’t sign the terms of service, which absolutely no one reads, I can’t use Facebook currently. So, it’s a completely one sided agreement between you and a lot of the tech companies. And the scary thing is that they can go, and they often do, go and adjust the terms of service to say things like, “Hey, we own all of your stuff that you’ve uploaded,” which has happened more than a few occasions between like Instagram and Dropbox. So, the good news is that there are some laws on the books that should protect us. The Fair Credit Reporting Act does allow us to look at our credit report once a year. So, for things like Equifax, you can at least correct the information that’s gathered. The thing is, you can’t do that with the information that’s been gathered by Amazon and pretty much every other company on Earth.

Over in the European Union, starting May 18th, they’re gonna have the capability of opting out and still being able to use a platform like Facebook or Tinder, without having to worry about all this information being collected because, they’ll have the right to actually say, “Hey, I want you to delete that.” Or, “Hey, you can’t have that information for more than 30 days.” So, I’m kinda like in the middle of that argument, where, I’m kinda like, “I don’t mind if these companies are gonna gather and sell me data, but I wanna be paid for it at least.” You know, there’s absolutely no reason why Facebook or Google or Amazon can’t cut me a check, even if it’s something small, that represents the profit they made by gathering and selling my information. And I would be okay with that, especially if it was a big check.

Amy Guth: Sure.

B.J. Mendelson: In the United States, we don’t yet have laws on the books, except for maybe Washington state, where it’s kinda like, “Hey, this is what governs the kind of data being collected, and this I what we can do about it.” And the thing I advocate for, is that, because I have no confidence in the federal government to do anything, I’m a big believer that if people are listening to this and they’re angry and irritated, they should contact the state representative, and ask for state-level laws to help dictate what these companies can and can’t do with the information.

Amy Guth: Well, it seems like this is another example of where the law hasn’t caught up with behavior. We talk about this a lot with bad behavior online. Abusive behavior that’s really hard to enforce in some instances. So, we talk about this a lot, I think, in the digital frontier, because it’s a bit like the wild west, until the laws catch up with it, and it’s always just like a step ahead. What’s interesting to me, is how seriously privacy has been taken in Europe as opposed to here. What do you think the difference is culturally, that’s manifested so much legal action in Europe, as opposed to here?
B.J. Mendelson: I am so … I’m a dyed in the wool democrat, and I say this because I don’t usually levy criticism at the Obama administration. But the company that visited the White House the most was Google, during his years in office. And, Google has … and when I say that, I mean Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft as well, spent millions of dollars in lobbying, to make sure that there’s no laws that come out and have any teeth to it, in terms of protecting the data. So, over in the European Union, it’s more like, those corporations have less power than they would here in the United States. And so, that’s sort of the downside of it. There was a number of instances under both Bush and Obama, where they could have came in and said, “Hey, we’re the department of justice, and you can’t be doing this with people’s data,” and aside from slapping Facebook on the wrist gently a couple times, we just really haven’t done anything.

So, I mean, that’s the key difference, is that we don’t have the functioning federal bureaucracy to protect us in the way that the European Union does. And especially now, where I can’t even tell you how the federal government operates. There’s no infrastructure there in place to actually take action and say, “Look, you guys can’t do this.” Which is why I’m kinda like, if you call your state representative, even if your state fails to do something, just see the threat, is enough to for these states, and enough for these attorneys general to come after the tech companies, they will start regulating themselves the better. And we saw that with Microsoft. Microsoft ultimately settled with the DOJ and they said, “Alright look, we’re gonna make changes. This is clearly something we need to correct.”
So, I’m confident we can get to the same place as the European Union is, but we can’t count on the same leverage in place that they had over here because of the lobbying, and the access to the politicians these tech companies have.

Amy Guth: I wanna switch a little bit, to focus this conversation next on social issues, particularly around bias around a rather homogenous workforce in the tech giants, because that is something that comes up a lot, particularly around workplace behavior. But I wonder about your thoughts on how that manifests with privacy issues. And with things you’re describing here, like not getting a loan, like getting turned down for an apartment, getting prices change, getting opportunities displayed differently.

B.J. Mendelson: Yeah the consensus seem to be that the algorithms and tools that are in place thanks to Google, Amazon, and others, they are great for the rich, and if you’re poor you’re out of luck. And the most common example that we hear about that is, if you’re calling customer service, and you’re a high profile customer, the data’s gonna say, “Hey, someone needs to actually talk to this person.” Whereas if you’re poor, you’re not valuable to the company. They’re gonna send you to some automated system and good luck getting your problem resolved there. So, there’s unfortunately a lot of that going on where we’re using these algorithms to kinda segment people. And then we create these situations where it’s sorta like, you know, the broken window theory, or stop and frisk, where the data says, “Hey if you go in these areas and check people, they’re likely to be carrying weapons and committing crime,” even though, that data, nine times out of ten, is proven to be wrong. Or there’s a larger story behind those numbers that we’re just glossing over.

And yet, we kinda worship the numbers that are given to us by these companies and we don’t stop and go, “Hey, did you ever wonder if maybe stop and frisk doesn’t work?” That took a really long time for people to have that conversation because they just worship at the altar of the data. And so, the challenge we face as a society, in terms of the impact that these algorithms have on different groups is that we don’t stop and ask why, we just look at the what.

So, if the what says you’re poor, then the company isn’t gonna talk to you. Like, they’re not gonna stop and go, “Hey, maybe he just missed a credit card payment a couple times.” There doesn’t seem to be any critical thought, and that has led to just a lot of bad news around the way. I mean, you’ll get stuff like pred poll and crime statistics and it’s like, “Yeah, sure the area might be showing up as bad. But why is it bad? What can we do to actually take action and fix it? Putting more police there just moved the crime over to a different spot, it didn’t solve the problem.”

It’s just sort of ridiculous when you think about it but that’s … nobody has this conversation and that’s where the struggle that’s happening, where we’re just not talking to each other and saying, “Hey, what does this actually mean? And how do we interpret it?” And so, we’re just saying, “The data says this, let’s go.

(My dog started barking here.)
Amy Guth: Right, right. And I see that your … Or hear that your dog has a strong opinion about privacy too.

B.J. Mendelson: She definitely does.

Amy Guth: That’s okay, animals are entitled to their opinions too. So, what was the catalyst for beginning this project and doing this research? Was it a smooth transition or an obvious next step from your first book? Or did something happen that made you really become interested in this topic?

B.J. Mendelson: No, I think when I was doing the research for Social Media is Bullshit, I was just kinda like, “Look, these Facebook ads, nine times out of ten, or eight times out of ten if we’re being generous, don’t really work.” And yet, we’ve got billions of dollars going into this, and we’ve got all the media companies, back then anyway, praising Facebook as if it was like the savior of media. And that’s just the kind of thing where it was like, “Alright, well what’s fueling this? Let’s just put aside whether or not the ads work or not. Like, why is Facebook so valuable in the first place? Why is Google so valuable in the first place. Why are these companies, that for a long time really struggled to make money, valued way more than something an Exxon Mobil?” And it all came down to data. And then, as we started looking through there, it was like, “Well, I didn’t know they were doing that. Did you? Like how? Who were they selling this stuff too? You mean that they have a complete data profile on me as an individual, I thought all that stuff was supposed to be anonymous.”
Because that’s the thing you constantly hear, right. Like, “Oh, you know, we pass data onto each other and it’s completely anonymous.” And it’s not true. Like, you are not anonymous on the internet. And even if you are using something like Tor or you’re using a messaging app like Signal, there’s still ways to collect data on you. And there’s still ways to put a individual file together on you and all your habits, all your likes, and they’re making money off of this. And so, that’s where I was kinda like, “Hey well, okay. Pay me. If you’re turning billions of dollars and you’re selling people garbage, because these ads are not effective, then I might as well make some of the money,” so that sort of just led me into this. And then I started digging into the algorithms and I was reading about how it’s really benefiting the rich and if you’re poor, you’re really gonna be punished going into the future with the way that we look at the data and we don’t actually stop and interpret it.

So, this injustice kind of angered me to the point where it’s like, “I need to say something.” Because it’s not that people aren’t saying anything, it’s that we’re not having this conversation in a productive way.

Amy Guth: Right. It seems like we often … Well, the research that you’ve done for your book, it seems like it’s very difficult information for the layperson to access. We all kind of have hunches, but it’s in fact very difficult to … you know, there’s no customer service phone number for most of the tech giants, right? You file a ticket and you wait and you’re at their mercy. So, because there is so much secrecy and so little transparency, it’s very difficult to confirm hunches and to get that information or for them to even confirm or deny what our suspicions are. And there’s very little reason for them to do so, or care about what we think, right? They’re such a … particularly Facebook, what a large user base. I think the latest said one in seven people on the entire planet is using Facebook every day.

B.J. Mendelson: Well, they claim. They claim.

Amy Guth: They claim. Yeah.

B.J. Mendelson: And so, the thing is, is that we all think it’s magic, right? Like, when you hear the word algorithm, people’s eyes tend to glaze over. But it’s just a cooking recipe basically. Like it’s no different than what you would use at home to make pot cookies, except maybe you’re listening to Rush as you’re doing it. So, we don’t stop and go, “What do these things actually mean? Like, what does it mean to be an active user on Facebook?” Because Facebook ain’t telling you what that means. They’ve never defined what it means to be an active daily user on Facebook. Like, so do you interact with objects? Okay well, I logged in with Spotify on my Facebook account, does that mean I am an active Facebook user? So, it’s not in their best interest to tell us anything. And for so long … I hate to blame the media for anything, but one of biggest faults probably of the early 21st century, is looking at these tech companies and treating them like they’re magic. And saying, “Wow, look at how this thing grew overnight.”

I mean, Facebook’s a great example, where, in the run-up to Facebook’s explosive growth, everyone was like, “It’s viral, it’s wonderful, it’s amazing,” but what no one talked about was that Facebook was buying companies that were notorious scrapers, which just means they were going out and grabbing people’s email addresses and all sorts of personal data and then spamming those people to grow their site. But we just didn’t talk about that. We just talked about, you know, the power of social media. You know we had all of the Gary Vaynerchuk’s of the world come out and tell us that, “You can do it,” and, “You can crush it.” And, “Hustle by using twitter and make yourself a big millionaire.” That’s sort of the issue. We just haven’t said, “Alright, everything just needs to stop.” And we have to look at this stuff and say, “What does it mean when you say algorithm?” “Oh, well an algorithm is just a cooking recipe.” “Cool, now I understand what this is instead of just saying, ‘Oh well the algorithm is magic, and wonderful, and powerful.'”

Amy Guth: Or intentionally allowing it to be shrouded in mystery. And assuming it’s something only a select few could understand. So, how did we get to this point? How did we get here? You know, I think every time we say, “The media,” I think it’s essential we acknowledge the very large role that is played by social media users. You know, no longer … every day I feel like, “This is the hill I’m going to die on,” but every single day, I see these conversation happening on social media, particularly Twitter. Saying, “Oh, the media said this.” I’m like, “Well, actually a bunch of Twitter pundits did that aren’t affiliated with any news organizations.”

B.J. Mendelson: Right.

Amy Guth: So to be accurate, be clear with what we’re saying. So, I think it’s really essential we acknowledge the role of social media pontification and how, you know, making declarative statements, or that’s sort of the way of the internet. Snark is the default setting and language of the internet. I think that’s important to acknowledge too. But at some level, we have gotten to this point, you know. At no point, did we all join forces and say, “Absolutely not. Until you have more transparency, oh tech giant, we’re not going to let you proceed. We’re not going to let you do this.” So, is it novelty that propelled us to this point, and it’s like the boiling frog conversation, that we, you know, slowly but surely, “This is kind of neat and cool and lets us keep in touch with people.” And over time we realize, “Wait, we’re being cooked, here.” Or was it something else?

B.J. Mendelson: Well so we … it’s a giant conversion of events. I detail this in Social Media is Bullshit, but kinda the short version is that I don’t think it’s nostalgia or it’s hyperbole or anything like that. Like, I kinda look at it like, we’ve had 20 years. And since 1994, we’ve consistently treated every tech company as if it was magic and wonderful. And, for us to treat Facebook the same way, even though we’ve seen other social networks coming on like MySpace, I mean, when was the last time anyone had a conversation about MySpace? I think this is where we as the media messed up, where we dropped the ball. Because to do it for like five years during a recession, where you had a lot like former real estate brokers that were becoming social media gurus. And there was a lot of tech companies and media companies that were really struggling, especially on the media side where it’s like, “Alright, well nobody’s buying advertising. Maybe social media’s the thing that’s gonna save us.”

Like, I understand that aspect of praising and being excited about social media, but to not look at the whole continuum going back to 1994 and saying, “Hey, wait a second. Every single company that’s come along, we’ve treated as magic, including Netscape. I mean, Netscape, we treated like it was this big and wonderful thing but it was just a rip off of another browser that was developed in Illinois called Mosaic. But yet, when it came out to the press it was like, “Wow, look at this amazing thing.” And that’s no different that how we treated Snapchat just recently. I mean, like I feel bad for anybody that’s invested money in Snapchat. Because Snapchat not once ever stopped and said, “This is how many users we have.” In fact, they’re being sued for actively inflating the number of users that they told people they had. So, I don’t think it’s the novelty of it. I think it’s just a failure to stop and go, “You mean to tell me since 1994, all of these companies are magic? Really? Every single one of them?”

Amy Guth: Well, and we even use language around it that really does speak to, you know, we call the tech giants that reach a certain value, we call them unicorns. You know, we use words like magic, we use words like algorithm that sounds like alchemy. We use these words that tend to shroud it in mystery, but as you also pointed out a little bit earlier, I think it’s very interesting that the language around online success, rather than speaking to long-established tenants of business, and dominance, and power structures, we often use language like, “Crush it, kill it.” You know, very like quite brutal language really that’s supposed to be kinda fun and cheeky, but in fact, is technically very aggressive language, which I’ve always thought was very, very interesting.
B.J. Mendelson: Yeah, and a little off-putting too. I mean, when you think back, because I think that stemmed more from like the bro culture.

Amy Guth: Yeah.

B.J. Mendelson: Where there’s a lot of tech companies where this is the language that’s used. It’s not terribly inclusive, and then it’s … obviously, most of these companies in 2017 still fail most diversity tests. And so, I think it’s more of a reflection of just the kind of companies and people running them and not looking at the way the world actually is.

Amy Guth: Right, which is a topic I address all the time, on this program certainly. You know, there are so many issues. And even just talking about privacy and how search inquiries deliver different results to different users. At some point we think about this being so automated. But in fact, at some point, those choices are created by a human being. And we really don’t have a way to hold those human beings accountable. I talk about this a lot when we talk about behavior online, particularly around Twitter. I find it very difficult to believe that a very homogenous work culture or work place could possibly understand the plight of all of its user base, which is quite diverse, when it itself, is not diverse, hardly at all.

B.J. Mendelson: Right. I mean, if you look at Twitter, they’re just now rolling out more stringent anti-abuse policies. It’s 2017. Like, it should not have take you this long to go and do that. Especially because Twitter’s been around for 10 years now, and there’s been abuse. I mean, look, I’ve been on Twitter since almost day one, and it’s been just as bad as it was now. It’s just now, people are talking about it and saying, “Hey, you really need to go do something.”

So, the fact that it takes these companies so long to actually take action and correct these problems is troubling. The problem is that we don’t have the DOJ, or the FCC, or really anybody. It doesn’t matter who the administration is, we just don’t have anyone at the wheel saying, “Hey, you guys need to be better about this.” If you look at AT&T back in the ’80s, or Standard Oil, or any big monopoly, any time something huge came around that was bad for people, or had policies that were bad for people, the government stepped in and said you need to correct that. But that’s just been out the window since the second Bush got into office.

Amy Guth: And is that just because of a sense of, this is a topic for people in the technology field that can’t possibly be comprehended by those in the political field? I find it both hard to believe and not hard to believe at all that somebody somewhere in politics couldn’t comprehend it. You know, but like, on some level, maybe it is incomprehensible but that’s certainly something we need to shift.

B.J. Mendelson: And here’s a good example. There was gonna be a children’s toy that was gonna come out this year from Mattel called Aristotle, I think it was. And two senators were like, “Whoa, whoa. Wait a second. This toy is recording stuff and it’s got a server and someone on the other end is receiving all this data that’s going on from your kid’s bedroom.” And they wrote a letter and they said, “We want to know more,” and there was gonna be … there was the start of an investigation. This just happened. This just happened like a month or two ago. But where was that, you know, where were those guys with all this other stuff we’re talking about? It was a Republican and a Democrat senator. A republican and democrat that got involved so it was a bipartisan thing. Where was that action at any point with these tech companies?

So, I don’t think it’s that they don’t understand it. They do. I think that they’ve allowed the tech people to run around and go, “Oh, well, you know, if you regulate us then you’re anti-innovation,” which is not true at all. Like, if you look at what happened with Microsoft, when we finally stepped in with DOJ and said, “Internet Explorer is everywhere and this is not okay,” there was an explosion of browsers. That’s when you saw Chrome. That’s when you saw Firefox really take off in popularity. That’s when you saw all these other ones come about, so to say that, “Regulation doesn’t breed innovation and therefore you shouldn’t touch us,” it’s insane. Like, it’s BS. There’s no better way I can put it. It’s just straight BS.

Amy Guth: Yeah. And so, where do we go from all this? From this point, where we do have an unbelievable amount of power seated at the helm of tech giants? And, you know, I think there’s a whole other conversation we could have just about the social justice impact of that because of the aforementioned issue, that those seats of power tend to be rather homogenous. So, that’s a whole other conversation for another day though, but what do we do now? Because there is a feeling of some degree of powerlessness because, as you pointed out, you can’t really opt out and there’s some you can’t opt out of at all, like credit bureaus, so what does the consumer do right now to try to have some sense of privacy or at least be mindful and be on top of where that data is being collected? Or start to change the tide?

B.J. Mendelson: Well I think we have to acknowledge that privacy is kind of dead at the moment. That doesn’t mean it can’t come back, I want to be clear, because sometimes when I tell people privacy is dead, they’re like, “Well, what do you mean it is?” It is temporarily dead. It can be brought back, but it has to happen on the state-level because the federal government, especially under doofus-in-chief, right now nothing is getting done so, if you’re listening this and you’re like, “Hey, I would like to get my privacy back,” then the thing to do is call the state attorney general’s office in your state or to talk to your local state representative and say, “I need laws on the book on the state level that says you’re going to protect my data, you’re gonna copy what they have over in the European Union with the GDPR law, which is what allows people to have their information erased,” and by the way, that law has strict fines too, so if a security breach, like what happened with Equifax, in the European Union, if that happened, they would have to pay out billions of dollars in fines and that’s what we need here. Consequences.

It sounds easy on paper, I know. It’s easy to get fed up too, with the way the government is but it can be fixed but it just takes people listening to this and people reading the book and people talking to each other to say, “If I call my state attorney general’s office, and if I call my state representative, we can at least create the threat of action and the threat of action itself should force Google and Amazon and Facebook to start making changes and if we can get them to start making changes, we can have a larger conversation so, I know it’s frustrating but that’s … We can fix it, we just have to have the will to do it.

Amy Guth: Right, which does seem hard to muster in the current political climate, when there’s always something new popping up to exhaust us. As you have undertaken this topic and developed expertise in it and done all of this work and this research, how has it changed the way that you connect with people over social media and the way that you use digital tools in your life?

B.J. Mendelson: I’ve done the complete opposite so I’m now giving out my phone number whenever I do an interview, it’s … Is it okay if I do it here?

Amy Guth: Sure.

B.J. Mendelson: So, people listening to this, if they want a free .pdf of Social Media is BS, they can text me. This is my real number by the way, so 646-331-8341. All you have to do is text me the word ‘sheetrock’ and I will send you the book and so, I tell you that because I just embrace that I don’t have any privacy anymore. Like, in my book, I’m … In the End of Privacy book and in Social Media is Bullshit, I am completely open about everything as the way to demonstrate that right now there is no protection so, you have two choices, you can go in either extreme. You can go try to live in a cabin in the woods in Montana or you could do what I’m doing, where I’m saying, “I’ve got no privacy anymore, so I’m just gonna tell you everything there is to know about me to highlight the situation we all live in,” so that’s what I’ve done.

I don’t encourage that for other people cause I now constantly stop and people are like, “Hey, how’s your health? I saw that you were dealing with depression.” I don’t want to get into those conversations with complete strangers, but I do that to highlight that this is the world that we now live in and if you don’t want to live in that world, then there’s things that we can do.

Amy Guth: So you are taking the hiding in plain sight approach and-

B.J. Mendelson: Yeah.

Amy Guth: I think that’s interesting and I’ve thought about that many times myself. I do wonder though, particularly around online culture right now, if that would be equally feasible for all citizens?

B.J. Mendelson: I don’t know. I’m a pretty big social justice advocate so I struggle with, “Alright, well, I’m a straight-ish white guy so it’s easy for me to kind of walk around and be like, ‘Hey, I’m gonna tell you my business,’ but that might be really hard for different groups of the population,” so, I don’t know if that’s something that would work for everybody. I don’t recommend it but I think it’s a discussion worth having and if it interests you, try it because right now, you have no privacy anyway. It is very easy, I can’t stress this enough, you might think that, like if you come up with a clever screen name or something, that you’re hidden, right, that you’re secret. But all it takes is one little mistake and there’s a data trail and we can find out everything there is to know about you and in some cases, if you were born within the past ten years, we know everything about you from exactly when you were born, thanks to Facebook.

So, like I said, it’s definitely a discussion to have. I don’t have a good answer for that. I just know that, with the position that I’m in, I’m able to do that. I don’t know if it necessarily translates, as much as I would like it to, to make that point but it’s definitely something we need to look into.

Amy Guth: Yeah, I mean, it’s one I’ve thought of too because as we face issues like doxing and real threats online, especially towards women, those threats tend to be very sexually violent in nature and I wonder about that and I have thought about the idea of hiding in plain sight but I’ve also though, you know, well one hand, perhaps I could hide in plain sight, on the other, perhaps I would be … It really only takes one person to do real harm to somebody so I think it is an interesting topic that you raise though, for sure.

B.J. Mendelson: Yeah I think that’s part of a larger, ongoing discussion we, as a culture and a society, need to have with each other and it does deal with privilege, it does deal with power and I am not an expert in those topics for sure but at the very least, I can at least be some kind of example to demonstrate that we don’t have any privacy at the moment and why we should bring it back.

Amy Guth: All very interesting and thought-provoking stuff. B.J. Mendelson, thanks so much for being with us today. The first book is called Social Media is Bullshit, the second one is called The End of Privacy. Thanks so much for being with us today.

B.J. Mendelson: Thank you. It was a real pleasure.


(Photo Credit: Kyla Borg / Wikimedia Commons)