The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other

Facebook Privacy: Exhibitionism or Electricity?

(Reading Time: 5.5 minutes)
In an uncharacteristically dour post, Brett McCracken shared his thoughts on the ongoing hullabaloo surrounding Facebook's decreasing privacy. Last week, Facebook amended its settings to be clearer for users. Prior to that, the settings had called labyrinthine by some. Some saw it as a tactic to disguise Facebook's ever-ebbing privacy from its members. The amount of personal information publicly available to the Internet continued to increase, unsettling many. Additionally, last week, Facebook's CEO met with the U.S. Congress to further discuss privacy issues in the Internet age.

In his post, McCracken uses the event to discuss broader issues of privacy and exhibitionism on the Internet. But he focuses his criticism not on the Internet but upon Facebook users themselves. He essentially accuses them of being hypocrites for wanting privacy even while updating their statuses, uploading photos, and upping their thumbs about someone else's status or photo. He argues that the privacy issue is really just a "smokescreen" covering up "frightful inclinations" toward "unabashed exhibitionism"—which McCracken sees as the underlying and real issue. Those aren't scare quotes. That's what he writes.

McCracken chalks it up to an interior conflict that many users are having. In broad strokes, he assigns to large numbers of people this same internal struggle. He fleshes out his argument by recalling a 2008 documentary, "We Live in Public"—a sort of videotaped experiment about privacy. By complaining about privacy, he argues, users are obfuscating the real issue: the impulse to expose themselves and their lives. In other words, they want to keep their exhibitionist impulses hidden—private, if you will.

As I say, McCracken's curmudgeonly tone is a bit exceptional for his blog. But despite his cheerlessness, I agree that the problem here is a legitimate clash between privacy and exposure.

But is this really an internal conflict? Is this public outcry masking our own deeply private issues? Are large numbers of people really lying to themselves when they say it's a matter of privacy? Are we really all wanton exhibitionists at heart? McCracken seems to suggest so.

There may be some veracity to his analysis of the human psyche. However, I'd like to suggest an alternative way of considering the issue. It's not necessarily a contrary point of view, but I do think the issue is less interiorized than McCracken makes it out to be. It's not so much an inner conflict between two impulses. Instead, it's a conflict between two environments that surround us.

McCracken alludes to these environments near the end of his post. He writes, the documentary "correctly theorizes that the Internet is pushing culture in the direction of vast openness and away from old notions of privacy." In other words, there's a conflict between the Internet's impulse for openness on the one hand and culture's long-held values of privacy on the other. But this does not describe an interior conflict of personal impulses. No, we're witnessing colliding environments.

The Internet's "vast openness" represents one of these environments—the electronic. The "old notions of privacy" derive from the other environment—the print. Here's how.

Culture's "old notions of privacy" is the environment created by mass print culture. This environment has a 500-year history of shaping our values. Print is hyper visual, so in this environment, information caters to visual values. Because vision dissects, and because reading is a private and objectifying experience, the dominant values became separation, individualism, and distance—in other words, privacy. Further, because print mass produced, these values shaped the dominant "notions" of the public—that is, culture. In a fun paradox, we all together became a public of separate individuals. We were a new public with fierce privacy.

Cue electronic culture. Beginning with the telegraph, electronic values came into this mass public of hyper-private, uber-individual values. In the electronic environment, information caters to the ear instead of the eye. Therefore, because hearing collects, information is treated more communally and less privately—it's shared instead of horded. As a result, you see the emergence of what Seth Godin coined "tribes." You see a renewed fervor for church fellowship under the banner of "community." You see social networking sites like Facebook emerging as dominant ways to "stay connected" with your friends and family. All of these are about sharing information. Wikipedia harnesses this. Google wants to catalog it. The old hierarchies of information hording are "the Man." Thus, as Internet users put more information about themselves online, the acoustic nature of Internet has the propensity for "vast openness."

For the time being, it is indeed the "old notions of privacy" from print culture that are resisting electronic culture's propensities. Somewhere in us, we consciously want privacy and individualism. That's part of our identity and even our self-understanding. That's the result of a long history of print and visual values, with a whole culture that has been shaped by them. But now, as if suddenly, we're living in an electronic environment that is changing that. We as people are the intersection where these two environments are colliding. So in that sense it is an interiorized conflict. However, it's not a conflict of impulses but of environments. These environments collide within us. And we're jarred by the impact.

But electronic culture is the future. It's driven by business and industry of all kinds. It's even driven by print culture. It's virtually unavoidable, and it is already shaping us. It's shaping how we manage information and how we relate with others. These are the matters at the core of privacy: information and relationships. We're collecting and organizing the world's information together on the Internet. And we're growing used to finding the information we need there. Any information. Soon this will likely include personal information. There are companies that sell that "data." There are companies that buy it. Both personally and corporately there are pressures toward "vast openness." The electronic environment is shaping this and accommodating it. Soon, the "old notions of privacy" will likely be quaint and archaic. We'll find our identity in our tribes, communities, and social networks. It may be less about who we are and what we know than who we're with and what we share. Facebook is making that happen. It'll just take some getting used to.

Your mom taught you well