A Dangerous Notion

Friday, January 20, 2012

This is something I started writing in spring 2010 when I was blogging about my weekly food purchases, and noticing the implications of doing that normal everyday thing in an oddly public way. On the one hand, buying food is not a deeply personal experience, but on the other, it tells a story about yourself that you may or may not want the world to know.

I was reminded of that idea this week with the divorce announcements of two high-profile bloggers, personal finance blogger J.D. Roth at Get Rich Slowly, and uber-blogger Heather Armstrong, known the world over as Dooce. Thought it might be worth expanding it a little, wrapping up, and posting.

So here it is.

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There was an article in the N&O recently [oops, not recent anymore, April 2010], picked up from the New York Times, about all of these internet services that allow people to broadcast everything that’s going on in their lives — not just Facebook and Twitter but things like Blippy (which includes information about everything you’ve spent money on) and Foursquare (which announces exactly where you are at any given moment).

They talked to someone who is a big fan of the services and when asked about the privacy implications, he said he didn’t mind having everything about him on the internet, in fact he embraced it. He said, “I simply have nothing to hide.” [Somewhat random aside, I just need to say that when I first started hearing about these types of services, I thought, "Yeah, everyone thinks all of this is a great idea until they want to start having an affair." Come on people, think ahead!]

I just need to say that I think this is a terribly dangerous notion, the idea that anyone who doesn’t want everything they ever think or do or say posted on the internet for public consumption has something to hide.

One of the things I found exceptionally weird about my food projects was the level of detail I chose to put up on the internet for everyone who ever googles me to discover and read. I went from being really happy that when you searched for my name I didn’t appear until the second or third page, to having pictures of me eating soup and videos of me showing the contents of my refrigerator to reporters as the first hit. Oy! What was I thinking?

There’s nothing wrong with anything I’ve done, and there’s nothing particularly embarrassing about it, but it definitely affected my thinking — you can’t help but think, “How is this going to look on the internet?” every time you make a decision about something you’ve committed to blogging about. And that may have positive benefits — if you’ve told everyone you don’t eat junk food, you’re going to think twice about getting a Big Mac — but I don’t necessarily think it’s a healthy way to live. Because if you do get a Big Mac, you’re probably going to figure out some way to not talk about it, which is weird, or if you own up to it, you’re going to have to write about it and feel bad about it, which is also weird.

I think that people should be able to live their lives and not have to worry all the time about how it’s going to look to other people. And not feel like they’re “hiding” something if they don’t want it posted on the internet. Or actively (or passively) lying about what’s actually going on because they’ve decided they don’t want to talk about it.

Before the release of The Social Network (better known as “the Facebook movie”), there was a long ¬†article in the¬†New Yorker about Mark Zuckerberg. His stated reason for starting Facebook — and his ongoing contention — is that the world would be a better place if it was more “open and honest.” He feels like having all of this information about everyone easily accessible on the internet breaks down barriers and brings people closer.

I think it’s worth noting that Facebook was designed for college students. I think most people’s life when they were in college was probably simpler than their life is now (assuming that you are not a twenty-year old student at an elite institution) and some things that make sense when you are twenty might not make sense a few years later.

I so far have remained one of the thirty-five per cent of internet users who are not on Facebook, so I have only anecdotal evidence to draw from, I can’t speak from my own experience, but it seems to me that the way people get around this is to create an “online persona” that for some people is very close to who they actually are and some people is not. People set up a filter for how they deal with Facebook, just like they do with other areas of their life. So in that sense, it’s not more open and honest, it’s just another layer for people to negotiate. Not sure if that was what Mark Zuckerberg had in mind.

Right now I half wish I was a sociologist who studied online communities, because I think it would be fascinating to look at the intersection of public and private, how it changes as people move through various stages of life, and what are some of the unintended consequences of social media. Last I checked, J.D. Roth’s divorce announcement had garnered more than 500 comments. He’s not a blogger like Dooce, who has made a living writing about his private life, but the reason his site is popular and compelling is because of the personal connection people feel to him, which was built over years of his incorporating details from his life into his writings. There was really no way he could not mention this change in his life, but in so doing, it required him to put his private life out to the public in a way he might rather not have done (and in a way I’m sure his wife would really rather him not have done).

Which takes me back to the original point of this post, which is that just because you don’t want everyone on the internet to know everything about you does not mean you have something to hide.

And it is my firm contention that the world would be a better place if everyone stood their ground on that one.

6 Responses to “A Dangerous Notion”

  1. Ruby Leigh Says:

    Facebook came out when I was in college, so naturally I joined… it wasn’t nearly as crazy then either. I’m still on, but I don’t make it a big part of my life.

    I think this sort of reiterates some my sentiments about why I continue to use a pseudonym on my blog. It’s simply adds a layer of anonymity to my position. Or more simply my blog isn’t the first thing that comes up when you google my real name.

    Additionally, having written a blog about frugality and food I do feel an odd sense of “guilt” when I don’t make thrifty decisions. Like going out to high highfalutin restaurants and so forth, and usually “forget” to mention them online.

    I think awareness here is key, use the tools to do what you want but have enough boundaries to not let them use you. Finding those boundaries is tough though.

  2. lessisenough Says:

    It’s funny about the anonymity thing. I thought a lot about that when I was first thinking about how to handle having a blog — which was actually a few years before I did the dollar-a-day project. I read a book called The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet and the interesting thing about that was that almost every single story in that book about something that blew up on someone started out with the person thinking they were anonymous and doing things that they probably wouldn’t have done if they hadn’t been anonymous, and then their identity being exposed and all hell breaking loose.

    Basically it was just story after story of “well I didn’t think anyone would ever pay attention to this, and how would they even find it anyway” and then being linked by some major website and getting a gazillion hits. And then having them really regret some of the things they’d said.

    My take-home lesson from that was that you can try to stay anonymous if you want, but you shouldn’t plan on it. So basically don’t post anything that you wouldn’t post if you weren’t anonymous.

    And in fact the dollar-a-day project went very much like that. I did it assuming no one would know about it, I was just doing it as a demonstration project for me, and then I was on Good Morning America and in People magazine. I’m glad I did the project, and I don’t mind having been momentarily famous, but it did have lasting implications that I hadn’t planned on when I started.

  3. Bryant Says:

    personal privacy, I feel is an unalienable right, or might I say, need. Thanks, rebecca, for discussing this.


  4. Sherry Turkle writes about online communities and the interface between online and offline lives, doesn’t she? Have you ever read any of her stuff?


  5. Sherry Turkle’s book, Alone Together, summarizes the twenty years of research she’s been doing on Facebook and online communities.

  6. lessisenough Says:

    I’ve heard of Sherry Turkle but haven’t read anything of hers. I feel like she’s coming at it more from the technology side, how people interact with and use technology, whereas what I’m interested in is less about the technology itself and more about the communities that are created and how people function within those communities.

    For instance I think it’s funny that people talk about “Facebook friends,” and by that mean people you are not actually friends with, but that you are friends with on Facebook. This may be different in different age groups, for instance younger people who have grown up with Facebook may think about this totally differently, but for people I know, people you are friends with on Facebook are not necessarily your friends.

    I actually love the South Park episode about Facebook called You Have 0 Friends. I’m not sure if it’s still available on the South Park website but if it is, it’s totally worth watching.


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