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.

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For Jarvis, the decision to blog about his condition was an easy one. "When I got the diagnosis, my immediate impulse was to go public," he says. "Now, you can say that this is because I'm an exhibitionist, but there was value that I wanted back from this community." Within days of his initial post, he had hundreds of comments on his blog, many of them simply wishing him well, but many offering specific advice from personal experience: what to expect in the immediate aftermath of the surgery, tips for dealing with the inconveniences of the recovery process. By taking this most intimate of experiences and making it radically public, Jarvis built an improvised support group around his blog: a space of solidarity, compassion, and shared expertise. And in conducting this conversation in public, Jarvis had another target audience in mind: Google. Because Buzzmachine enjoys a high ranking in Google's index, Jarvis's posts about his cancer were likely to be featured prominently in search results for prostate cancer-related queries. "Yes, you get support from friends by going public with something like this — that's pretty obvious," he says. "But you also get highly detailed information about what you're about to go through, and you have the ability for all of us together to inspire other people to go get tested."

In the end, it wasn't just a conversation for Jarvis, it was a conversation for the thousands of other people who will come to those pages through Google. There is an intensity and honesty to these public disclosures that can be enormously helpful, next to the formal, anonymous advice of a hospital cancer site. When you read through Guy Kewney's final posts, you hear a voice that you almost never encounter, the voice of someone who has made enough of a peace with death that he can look it squarely in the eyes, someone writing about the daily indignities of terminal disease alongside an honest accounting of the loss he feels dying at a too-early age, interrupted by strange flashes of happiness. You get a truer account of what it actually feels like to go through that terrible experience than any official page on the Mayo Clinic or WebMD sites could ever offer.

Jarvis now talks about this experience as a lesson in the virtues of "publicness." The Constitution may not contain an explicit reference to the right to privacy, but the notion that privacy is something worth cherishing and protecting needs little justification. What Jarvis suggests is that the opposite condition needs its defenders: that publicness, too, has its merits. Oversharing, in a strange way, turns out to be a civic good. This concept also dates back to the early days of the electronic commons; Rheingold's 1993 book The Virtual Community told the story of a member of the pioneering online community, The Well, posting about an ultimately fatal battle with cancer. But The Well was a small community compared to the vast expanse of the Web, and those conversations unfolded in a space uncrawled by Google's spiders. The shared experience and wisdom that comes from living in public can now reach a much bigger audience — most of them complete strangers, dropping into the conversation from a search query.

Of course, the cancer element endows a certain nobility to all the talk about Jarvis's penis and Howard's butt. There may be civic good in oversharing about your erections (or lack thereof) when you're battling prostate cancer, but I think it is a reasonable assumption that 99% of all discussion of sexual activity on Facebook does not have such laudable intentions behind it. Every other day, it seems, an article runs somewhere documenting some lamentable case of a teen getting charged with distributing child pornography after posting nude pics of his girlfriend online. We may well need a new understanding of how the public life can serve a higher purpose. But we also need to know when to shut up already.

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