Web Privacy: In Praise of Oversharing

The Web is making us more intimate strangers. Why going public can be a civic good

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Donna Ferrato

Resident of the Capsule Hotel applies eye makeup in her pod in 1999.

Last summer, the author and media critic Jeff Jarvis was diagnosed with a treatable form of prostate cancer. In many ways, he responded to this news the way most cancer patients have since the advent of modern medicine: he told his relatives; he went back for further tests and second opinions; he read up on the treatment options, ultimately deciding on surgery to remove his prostate.

But he did something else along the way: he started blogging about his recovery. For years he had posted regular missives on the state of the media business on his popular blog, buzzmachine.com. But Jarvis began using his pulpit to discuss much more intimate topics. He blogged about his reaction to the diagnosis, about the challenges of opting for surgery over radiation therapy. After the surgery, he blogged about the humiliation of wearing adult diapers. He blogged about his erectile dysfunction, albeit using slightly less technical language. Buzzmachine went from being a blog about the sagging state of the newspaper business to being about the sagging state of — well, you can see where this is going.

Jarvis is a friend of mine, but it may tell you something about the strange mediated state of 21st-century friendships that I first found out about his cancer diagnosis in a Twitter update that he sent out linking to his original blog post. This is how we live now: we get news that we're facing a life-threatening disease, and the instinctive response is, I'd better tweet this up right away. We are constantly hearing about the Facebook generation's penchant for oversharing online, but Jarvis is in in his 50s, and he's not alone. The writer Howard Rheingold started a blog — called Howard's Butt — to chronicle his battle with colon cancer. The 64-year-old British technology journalist Guy Kewney blogged through the final months of his life after a year-long battle with colorectal cancer.

The strangest thing about tweeting your cancer diagnosis is that it doesn't even seem that strange anymore. We are overexposed to overexposure. But it's worth remembering that the Internet was not always supposed to turn into a networked version of The Truman Show, where we're all playing Truman. If you look back through the archives of early Internet enthusiasm — back in the day when you still had to explain what a "browser" was — one of the most striking things about that period is how obsessed it was with the technologies of privacy. The second issue of Wired feature an anonymous group of encryption experts on its cover. Entire books were written about the cutting-edge science of privacy keys that would allow you to transmit information that only a trusted recipient would be allowed to read. The premise was simple enough: these early tech visionaries recognized that our private lives were inevitably going to move online, which meant that we were going to have to develop electronic curtains to keep the neighbors and the Feds from peering in. Let's say you got sick and had to communicate electronically with your doctor, they would say. You wouldn't want the whole world to find out about your condition, would you? That's why we need strong encryption tools.

Encryption proved to be exceptionally useful for financial transactions and other official business online, but in the personal realm, that early privacy imperative now looks quaint, like the discreet bloomers of Victorian beachgoers. Some of us actually did want the whole world to find out about our condition. Life might be safer when private data stays private, but it also turns out to be less interesting.

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