The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other

The Public Mind

(Reading Time: 9 minutes)

Less than a year after joining Facebook, I found myself going through my day asking, "How could I word that in a Facebook post?" I was thinking in Facebook statuses. All my thoughts began, "Adam is . . . ." It was like obsessively playing MadLibs. It drove me crazy.

Even now with my blog, I spend time asking myself a similar question: "Is this idea something I could write a blog post about?" Or, as I've heard it said, Is it "blogworthy"?

These are the simple quirks of Facebook and blogging. They're part of the culture wrapped around them—the lifestyle surrounding "friends" and bloggers. But could these quirks grow into deeper habits?

Blogs, Facebook, and YouTube have changed our lives in many ways. Before blogs, what did people have but private journals? Before Facebook, we planned parties via email, and we didn't know who'd RSVP'd. Before YouTube, we ate what television served. Now we can cook our own meals.

But these Internet outlets incurred a bigger sort of change: We’ve been empowered to publicize our private lives.

Sure, reality TV was doing that to a very limited degree. Now anyone can do it. Bloggers can publish their ideas, just like I'm doing. "Friends" can tell nearly everyone they know what they're doing or thinking, and share photos from vacations and weddings and last night's party.

And Facebook has continually pushed to expand the publicity of our private lives—and gotten a lot of resistance.

This "new public" has been hailed as a new level of democracy for ideas and entertainment. The threshold has effectively disappeared. Anyone, literally, can publish themselves for a potential mass audience. Before Web 2.0, there was no mechanism for this. Before, you had gatekeepers. Today, there's only competition for attention.

Many saw this as an innovation. But really, I think this is the inclination of the Internet, and we were simply discovering it.

The Internet is an acoustic environment because it's an electric environment. In an acoustic space, anyone present can be heard if they shout loud enough. On the Internet, everyone is present and shouting. When blogs, Facebook, and YouTube arrived, they were simply cooperating with the Internet's acoustics.

Blogs, Facebook, and YouTube have expectations. Blogs are text-based, so we write stuff. Facebook asks "What's on your mind?" so we think stuff. YouTube is video-based, so we show stuff.

When I was a kid, I wrote letters now and then. I mailed them to my grandfather or to a girl—or, one time, to Hershey's. I don't do that anymore. I just shoot off emails. Anymore, my emails are rarely meaningful or intentional. They're sent to coordinate projects and schedules, share documents or information, or to pass along an article of interest. The vast majority of my emails are informational. Only rarely do I express my opinions and ideas in an email.

Opinions are what a blog is for. But I know how public a blog is. I don't feel comfortable sharing personal or private thoughts there. Instead I share ideas that are "blogworthy": things that might be useful to others, things that are already being talked about, things that are, well, public. Yes, a blog is public, so I share public ideas. That's what a blog expects—publicity.

So because a blog is a public venue, when I have "blogworthy" thoughts, I take note of them. But with private thoughts, well, I don't write those down.

How long does it take to start a habit? 7 days? 21 days? I think that we have mental habits too. And just like a bow-legged cowboy, those mental habits shape us.

Here's a generalization: I think that what we do shapes who we are. If I spend hours every day at the gym, my body will begin to change. If I spend years learning to speak Chinese, my brain will create new circuits and make new connections. If I watch a TV sitcom religiously, my sense of humor will probably mirror that for a while ("That's what she said"). What we do shapes who we are.

So then, if outlets like blogs, Facebook, and YouTube have expectations for what we think and do, are they shaping who we are?

If I make sure to remember public ideas, and care less about private thoughts, which am I more likely to continue having? Or remembering? Over time, what we do shapes who we are.

The privacy debate surrounding Facebook is a conversation worth having. But the Internet's expectation is that we will publicize our private lives. For the Internet, what's relevant and valuable is what is publishable: a status update, a blog post, a video. It is a technology that cannot compromise. It doesn’t have the will to choose. It is incapable of compromise. Publicity is in its nature. It cannot defy it's nature because it’s a program, not a person. We can resist it, but we cannot change it. To use Facebook is to publicize ourselves. It can do no other, and we cannot expect it to.

But for me, there's a bigger, deeper question. About Facebook, yes, but also blogging, YouTube, and probably the whole Internet.

The longer we use the Internet, then the more we live by it's expectations and values, and the more public our lives become. As we do, will we tend to think more publicly too? Right now, we contrast public and private, outside and inside. I'm not asking whether we'll finally throw up our hands and expose our deepest thoughts. I'm asking whether we'll simply think public thoughts and ignore private thoughts—nursing the public mind and starving the private mind. If public relevance and value are the criteria, will we come to devalue the interiority and reflection cultivated by books? Will we cultivate public minds? Will the public mind become who we are, by force of habit, and simply supplant our private selves? Will our public selves become who we truly are?

The exterior self began with language. It made leaps forward with writing. Writing has expectations like the Internet, that we'll publicize our minds. Plato saw this, even as he wrote about it. But even as he wrote, he resisted writing's expectations. The best thoughts of a philosopher can't be written down—or shouldn’t—Plato said. Reality as it is can't be adequately presented in writing. It can only be apprehended by a mind "after long partnership in a common life devoted to this very thing." In other words, habits shape who we become.

But Plato wrote something that struck me odd. I couldn't figure out his reasoning. He wrote: "One can be sure, if the writer is a serious man, that his book does not represent his most serious thoughts."

A serious man won't bare his soul in writing? Did Augustine ever read this? He was a serious man. The book was called "Confessions." Or what about Tolstoy's own "Confession"? If that wasn't serious, I don't know what is.

As I worked through this post, Plato's words returned to mind. His book does not represent his most serious thoughts.

I guess Plato's words made me want "serious thoughts" too good for words. I wanted privacy. But what Facebook and blogs and YouTube expect are publicity. The Internet doesn't value private thoughts, serious thoughts. Only public thoughts are worth anything. Only written words matter.
The more I write my thoughts and make them blogworthy, the more I may think like a blog. The more public our lives become on Facebook, YouTube, and Blogger, the less we think privately about anything —because, well, what's the value of thinking private thoughts?


NY Times: "I Tweet, Therefore I Am" "Some perspective on the perpetual performer’s self-consciousness. That involves trying to sort out the line between person and persona, the public and private self." "The Breakup 2.0" Facebook is returning us to a pre-electronic sense of public ettiquette.
Your mom taught you well