Clearly, Facebook’s recent spectacle has aroused both danah boyd’s and my attention. What is interesting is the radical difference between our interpretations of the phenomenon. At the risk of provoking a firestorm, I offer here a radical alternative to danah’s concerns. Besides, I would rather be provocative than right.
First a few items from her post Facebook’s “Privacy Trainwreck”: Exposure, Invasion, and Drama:
* Privacy is an experience that people have, not a state of data.
* The ickyness that people feel when they panic about privacy comes from the experience of exposure or invasion….
In addition to Facebook, we recently saw the The Seattle Craigslist sex scandal
Last Monday Seattle resident Jason Fortuny (and a friend) carried out a thought experiment into reality…. He took a hardcore Women Seeking Men ad from another city and reposted it to see how many replies he could get in 24 hours. Then he published every single response — photos, emails, IM info, phone numbers, names, everything, to a public wiki….
What people seem to be ignoring is that the Internet is emphatically not a private sphere. Nor is it an exclusively public one. The Internet (and network culture in general) forces us to deal with the difficulties inherent in the private/public distinction, a distinction that scholars from Marxians to feminists to postmodernists have been battering at for years, because it is a distinction that is both distinctly modern and arbitrary.
A while back I posted Blogging: The Public Lie in which I focused on blogs as yet another example of a medium that pretends to be public even as people pretend to publish private anecdotes, when in fact they are publishing highly selective pseudo-private accounts. Again, the evanescence of the public/private distinction.
Erving Goffman, in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, talks about the many faces we wear all the time. The blog is a public face. The blog is the equivalent of what the President of the United States says on TV from a prepared speech.
The blog is propaganda, not Truth.
Make no mistake: The desire for privacy is the desire to have secrets. Furthermore, as David Brin points out in The Transparent Society, privacy advocates are typically hypocritical in that they want privacy for themselves and transparency for everyone else. Luckily, transparency doesn’t work that way. If surveillance, then sousveillance. If you can watch me, then I demand the right to watch you. The consequence of privacy is that only the powerful will be able to watch others. In other words, the powerful will have privacy and the powerless won’t. Think about it. When is the last time you were able to see a company’s credit rating before you engaged with them? They do it to you all the time.
In conclusion, there is a dynamic that we have seen from tribal societies here on earth to astronauts in space: With high connectivity comes high visibility. Even if you opt out, that fact itself is visible and will have consequences in a society that values transparency. What connectivity has done is to challenge our expectations of privacy. As we move further and further along the pathway to a highly connected world, there comes a dissonance between people’s expectations (shaped by the old system) and the realities of that new world. But as history has shown time and time again, it is always people’s expectations that adapt forward to the new landscape, and not the landscape that adjusts backwards to people’s expectations.
And this trend towards openness is a wonderful and compassionate thing. The reason we keep secrets is because we are afraid of the consequences of letting those secrets out. When the secrets are out — all the time — the inevitable consequence is that no one will care: if you are gay, if you are an anarchist, if you make more money than I do, if you surf porn into the wee hours of the evening, etc.
So before we react badly to melodrama and slide backwards into a fear-driven society that condones stealth and secrecy for any reason
, I offer a few bullets of my own:
- Privacy is an experience that people have which is not only illusory, but serves the interests of those powerful players who can, and do, violate privacy all the time.
- The ickyness that people feel when they panic about privacy comes from the experience of exposure or invasion which may or may not be appropriate given the environment in which they are present.