One bit of library capital that hasn’t been borrowed by social media companies is our respect for privacy as a condition fundamental to intellectual freedom. We don’t want to look over your shoulder when you read. We don’t want to provide information about what you’re reading to others. This runs against prevailing ideas about how social relationships work. Even JSTOR is trying out a way of trading limited free access to articles in exchange for data that publishers can use. In the absence of any access, this seems like a good deal, but it’s not clear to me why we can’t do better. I already click through a copyright statement every time I use JSTOR because I prefer not to tie what I read to a personal account. I suppose JSTOR might say establishing personal accounts will improve our user experience, but I’m not buying it.
Research is by its nature social. We build on one another’s ideas and we share ours publicly to keep the conversation going. But it’s not social the way Facebook is. Facebook is a data-gathering machine. It’s a blank slate on which we write so that they can aggregate and monetize what we freely share. There are real problems with companies trailing you wherever your curiosity leads so that they can report to others where you’ve been. There are real problems with a database showing us what it thinks will make us happy rather than what might be out there. Privacy is one traditional library value that I wish these companies would borrow from us, but it would undermine their business model.