Online privacy in 2013 and trading old school correspondence on Lettrs.com

Mary Guedon of the group Raging Grannies holds a sign as she protests outside of the Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif. One of the biggest issues in tech in 2013 is likely to be privacy.

This week we're looking at what's going to be big in tech in 2013. One of the people we asked to give us predictions was Brian Barrett, Managing Editor of Gizmodo. He says one of the most important stories next year will be about what we're giving up when it comes to the version of ourself we present online. 

"To me I think the biggest issue is going to be privacy," says Barrett, "and how we live private lives in this age when social media really is almost a utility at this point. We’ve had a few instances with these companies that we feel almost friendly with, or a familiarity with, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram.

And we’re past the honeymoon phase a little bit. We started out with these things that were free services, that are great that connect us, that got all of these features, and now the bill's coming due. So what we’re going to have to do, we’re going to have to be a much more educated digital populace if we want to protect those things that we would rather keep private."

Considering how often Facebook and Instagram seem to change their privacy settings, for instance, how can we do that?  Beyond leaving Facebook, how can we look forward into the next year and deal with these challenges?

"It’s like any other New Years resolution, except one that’s easier to keep track of maybe than losing 10 pounds," says Barrett. "You just check in on your settings every two months or so, make sure they are what you remember them being.  I think we tend to take so much of it for granted that we don’t keep up with it."

That may be useful advice for some of us who were around before Facebook and Twitter were big. But there's also a lot talk about younger people who are basically living online in ways we never lived online even five, ten years ago. Barrett thinks there's a shift happening there and that it's significant.

"The real question is when people get to applying for jobs," he says. "Maybe the hiring practice has changed and you think, well that looks like a fun guy to hang out with based on his pictures from last Saturday. The more you grow up with it, there’s not that disconnect between the you that you show the world, and the you that you actually are, because it’s so open and out there and honest."


While we're talking about living online, a new experiment for an old medium: Lettrs.com. Founder Drew Bartkiewicz, a tech entrepeneur who has a soft spot for snail mail, launched the website this month.

"The site allows people to use cloud technology, so kind of state of the art cloud technology to revise and reinvent letter writing" says Bartkiewicz. "I grew up writing and receiving letters, falling in love, falling out of love, and letters are kind of my past. and I think letters are part of a lot of peoples’ past. So Lettrs.com is a platform to let people revive letters past, but more importantly, reinvent letter writing by using technology."

Bartkiewicz says the project--or at least the design of his kind of social media for letter writing--came from his own experiences with a form of communication that doesn't normally happen digitally. Whenever he put a letter on his fridge in real life, for instance, his kids would take interest--ask about it at dinner, or read it and talk to a sibling about it.

"Each of these letters began to become social objects within our family," he says.  "And so when we designed the site for Lettrs,  we made sure that, there are certain letters people would like to share with a broader audience  because it’s either a beautifully written letter or it’s a letter that just shows great literacy, great creativity. So the website is designed very much like the physical world that pays tribute to letters."

Bartkiewicz says his website has users in 64 countries. You can write your own, post them on a virtual refrigerator for public view, and look at the correspondence of others, from President Eisenhower to Beyonce.

"The average middle school youngster sends 3330 text messages a month," says Joseph Scheideler, principal at Canton Middle School in Connecticut. "And most of them don’t mean anything. And who knows how many instant messages, and tweets, and the rest of it that they send, again it doesn’t mean anything. We want kids to be able to use that medium correctly and to be able to write thoughtfully, to write purposefully, to write with meaning, and not just as an academic exercise." 

Principal Scheideler has some of his students using the website to send letters to veterans overseas. He says it's a powerful way to share the corespondence with others beyond the soldiers and the kids writing to them. And hey--if you know someone's going to be reading your material, you probably stick to good grammar, too. 

About the author

Ben Johnson is the host of Marketplace Tech.

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