Some folks out there are still concerned about privacy issues on the internet; they worry that Facebook may be selling their information, that big companies like Google and Yahoo! are under legal compulsion to release personal data about their users under the Patriot Act, and some people think that the CIA and/or aliens (either separately or in some kind of criminal conspiracy) are spying on text messages and anonymous Wikipedia contributions.
It’s not just private citizens who are increasingly concerned that a drunken Facebook rant will find its way into the wrong hands. Politicians are tweeting, the White House is releasing YouTube videos, and major corporations have Facebook fan pages; the US Government has its own embarrassments around information they would rather the public had not seen as the Wikileaks issue only now begins to filter into the background of our increasingly short attention-span.
A lot of the talk about these issues centers around security— making one’s own data secure, keeping some information safe from others while widely publicizing other information— and morality— is it right for Facebook to sell information about your “Likes,” Yahoo! to release private emails to the government, or Julian Assange to publish diplomatic cables.
I have a solution to both problems.
Live like you’re in a glass house. Live as though everything that goes onto Facebook, Twitter, Gmail and forum boards is being published in a newspaper with your name and picture on the byline. For me, this includes embarrassing fantasy art I drew when I was a kid (I forgot the password to my account, or I would have deleted it out of shame), argumentative essays first against religion, then for Christianity, and now somewhere in between. It includes ridiculous back and forth debates in Facebook groups, poorly written outbursts, and even a few things written drunk. It includes numerous drug references, and a fair amount of humor that is probably politically incorrect. Imagine that all of it is popping up over your head, in real time, in real life, like holographic tweets.
Does it make you cringe? Do you remember that reference to getting stoned you posted on MySpace last year and turn a little green inside at the thought of sitting in a job interview with a balding, serious man with a slightly pink shirt and a stark white collar looking over your Social Networking Report? Do you worry about what your parents will think of your social life, now that they’re on Facebook and asking to friend you? Are anonymous-looking photographs of cleavage tagged with your name? In how many chat logs did you type dirty to someone (who you may or may not have been in a relationship with at the time)?
This may sound like empty moralizing, but it’s meant to be the opposite. I’m not saying, “don’t do anything you wouldn’t want public.” I’m not saying you should stop ranting, or Gmailing drunk, or start policing tags of yourself on Facebook.
I’m saying that we have to start thinking differently about what public and private mean. The net result of this transparency is a kind of honesty that shouldn’t make us reform our lives— it should make us reform our vision of what a responsible life is all about. Responsible people get drunk, they rant, they have and think about sex, they doubt themselves, they change their opinions, sometimes they’re assholes, sometimes they’re naive.
I think about all of this stuff, and it doesn’t rock my boat— because social media is changing the way that society and privacy works, whether we like it or not. There are only two places for information: one is the impenetrable vault of your mind— the perfect place for those things you would really rather no one knew about you— and the other is in media that is, to one extent or another, with more or less effort, public. As time goes on, there is less and less that stands between these two extremes. So, my solutions?
The solution to the security issue is: have fewer secrets, and don’t type them. Those things go in the Iron Vault. When you’re alone, when you’re going to sleep, when you’re showering you can take them out of the Vault and peer at them, reconsider them, turn them over in your hands and stroke them lovingly or with disgust— I don’t know what you keep in there— I don’t want to know!
The solution to the morality issue is to stop moralizing. Whether it’s right for Wikileaks to publish diplomatic cables is almost irrelevant when we consider: can anyone stop diplomatic cables from being distributed on the internet? Should we care whether it’s right for Facebook profiles to serve a commercial purpose when protecting our data would be all but impossible anyway?
We’re so hung up in judging the society that new media facilitates that we fail to realize that you can’t go back. We can’t un-eat the apple. This is the way things are now. If the imposition of the glass house is morally wrong that doesn’t make it any less real, but if we stop for a moment and accept the glass house on its own terms, as a reality, then we can begin to make sense of it, to appreciate it. Sure, we are losing our privacy, but you can’t argue with the view.