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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Privacy is Privacy, Regardless.

It IS one of life's contemporary paradoxes that we are becoming more private in a world that is increasingly public. As reality television makes human behaviour public and as evaporating communication barriers make it possible to be reached anywhere on the globe, we are becoming more private, more personal.

Private equity firms are taking public companies away from the transparency of the public gaze; and on the internet, that exemplar of a decorporatised universe where individuals rather than institutions rule, the shift from corporate websites to personal blogs confirms this reversal.

The flipside of millions of individuals exposing their lives and their passions publicly on YouTube and MySpace is the need they feel for privacy and anonymity.

The rise of the avatar, the digital mask, attests to this need for privacy and anonymity.

Never before have we had more opportunities to privatise our experiences.

There was a time when, to buy a house, we had to cram into an uncomfortable real estate office and make public our interest as we looked through flyers and brochures, asked questions in public, and clutched in our hands the real estate ads from that morning's newspaper.

Today, we simply turn on the computer in the morning and instantly receive relevant and personalised information on potential houses in direct response to the filters we entered in the privacy of our own homes.

Every aspect of the public world can be more private if we wish to make it so.

The most popular and financially successful "product" offered by Yahoo! is the online service known as "personals".

This is the dating or matchmaking service that has revolutionised "boy meets girl" or "girl meets girl" or any other permutation of the gender mix.

Once, a smart girl in her 30s with a degree, an interesting job, and a great sense of humour would have to suffer the indignity and potential public humiliation of standing around in a bar or other public space to meet an interesting guy.

When she did, the chances were that she was initially attracted to him because he was the right height and, more importantly, liked the same wine she did.

Alas, a long hour later, she would discover to her horror that the only thing they had in common was the wine.

Now, in the privacy of her own home, she can assess potential dates by checking their interests, activities and expectations online.

She can create a shortlist of men who have similar personal interests and professional ambitions, and talk to them privately on the phone before agreeing to meet one or two for lunch or a drink.

Certainly, the process doesn't allow for emotional chemistry or physical or mental attraction; but it does reduce the risk of time-wasting and it does make the process of finding a mate much more private than the public alternative.

The emergence of private, and more personal, service providers in direct competition to their publicly listed cousins can also be witnessed in the financial services sector.

Zopa, a private online "lending and borrowing exchange", connects people who want to borrow money with people who want to lend it to them.

The lenders are private individuals who set their own interest rates and select the people to whom they will lend their money.

The Zopa value proposition is straightforward and threefold: �"Our borrowers are better than banks".

�"Our lenders are better than banks".

�"People are better than banks".

Zopa says it's self-evident that people are better than banks.

They're better at playing football; better at going out for dinner with; better at painting watercolours; better because they don't have shareholders.

Communicating around the globe has become increasingly commonplace and, until recently, increasingly expensive.

A conference call on a public telephone network with a caller in Sydney, one in Melbourne and two in different locations in London can cost hundreds of dollars.

Many are therefore moving from the public phone system to a new way of communicating.

Voice over internet protocol, or VoIP, was, until recently, a fringe activity embraced passionately by tech-heads and very early adopters.

With the advent of Skype and other VoIP providers, the world has changed.

Skype enables users to download simple software in a few minutes and then to make a call via a computer to a colleague or friend anywhere in the world.

The experience of telephony has changed irrevocably, and has gone from a public process to a very private one.

Corporations are deciding whether to stay private or to go private.

Service providers are making the process more private. The reality television generation is privatising avatars.

Borrowing money is more private, and even finding a boyfriend has become a private mating game.

Ross Honeywill is a consumer behaviourist and executive director of consumer think tank the Centre for Customer Strategy. He is co-author, with Verity Byth, of NEO Power: how the new economic order is changing the way we live, work and play.

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