Web Privacy: In Praise of Oversharing

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

  • Donna Ferrato

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

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    In the late 1990s, at the height of the dotcom boom, an Internet tycoon named Josh Harris launched an elaborate art project called Quiet: We Live In Public, where more than 100 willing participants lived in an underground bunker, every moment of their bacchanalian existence filmed by a vast array of webcams. When that experiment was cut short by law-enforcement officials, Harris embarked on an equally revealing experiment: living with his girlfriend in a SoHo loft under unceasing Web surveillance, each bowel movement and lover's quarrel accompanied by live chat discussions among strangers all around the world. (The relationship fared about as well as the bunker did.) Last year, a documentary on Harris — called We Live In Public — won the Grand Jury Prize for documentaries at Sundance. The film holds out Harris as a kind of holy fool, a demented visionary who managed to anticipate the new normal of constant public exposure. Yet watching the 10-year-old footage, you can't help but notice how much of Harris's vision failed to come true. It is far easier to set up web cameras and share video online today — thanks to YouTube and ubiquitous high-speed bandwidth — and yet almost no one chooses to display themselves in such an extreme way. What we do online is something quite different: we curate our private lives for public exposure. We don't serve up a raw feed of our existence. We edit out certain bits, and highlight others. We fiddle with the privacy controls at Facebook. We define the circles of exposure.

    There used to be a large crevasse separating the intimate space of private life and what's exposed by the klieg lights of fame. But in the Facebook age, that crevasse has broadened out into a valley between the realms of privacy and celebrity, and we are starting to camp out there and get the lay of the land. What happens in the valley should not be mistaken for fame. When you sift through the birthday party pictures of a friend of a friend, you are not mistaking her for Lady Gaga. That isn't her 15 minutes of fame. That is your private life colliding that of a person you could imagine being friends or colleagues with, but aren't. Call it the valley of intimate strangers.

    The fascinating and troublesome thing about the valley is that the rules of engagement there are not clearly defined, and it's likely that they will stay undefined. Some of us talk about our relationships online; some allude to them indirectly; some keep them behind a cone of silence. Jarvis was so eager to blog about his cancer diagnosis that he felt almost restricted when he had to wait for his son to return from camp so he didn't find out via a tweet that his dad was sick. But at the same time, Jarvis draws the line at talking about his personal finances. ("l'll blog about my penis," he says, "but somehow it makes me uncomfortable talking about how much money I make — I'm still too American, I guess.") In our house, we have built a set of improvised rules about how much of family life to make public: I tweet or blog little anecdotes about the kids, but don't mention them by name. We never post pictures of them, except to our inner circle of friends on Facebook. When they're old enough for their own Facebook account, we'll let them decide for themselves how public they want to be with their lives.

    And that's the point, really: these are decisions now. In the old days, life was set by default to be private unless you happened to be famous. Now, we have to choose whether we want to venture into the valley of intimate strangers, and how exactly we want to live there. That requires a kind of literacy, different from the "information literacy" that educators and media theorists have been talking about for decades. It requires a literacy in the virtues and perils of both privacy and publicness. It requires that we acknowledge that certain kinds of sharing can, in fact, advance a wider public good, as well as satisfy our own needs for compassion and counsel.

    In our house, we have had health issues — fortunately not as debilitating as Jarvis's or as tragic as Kewney's — that we have chosen not to bring to the public sphere of the valley. We have kept them private not because we're embarrassed by them, but because some things we already think about enough and would frankly rather think less about, and we don't need to the extra prodding of 1,000 Facebook friends thinking alongside us. Every revelation sends ripples out into the world that collide and bounce back in unpredictable ways, and some human experiences are simply too intense to let loose in that environment. The support group isn't worth the unexpected shrapnel. Most of us, I think, would put the intensities of sex and romantic love in that category: the intensity comes, in part, from the fact that the experience is shared only in the smallest of circles.

    But no doubt something is lost in not bringing that part of our lives to the valley. Somewhere in the world there exists another couple that would benefit from reading a transcript of your lover's quarrel last night, or from watching it live on the webcam. Even a simple what-I-had-for-breakfast tweet might just steer a nearby Twitterer to a good meal. We habitually think of oversharers as egoists and self-aggrandizers. But what Jarvis rightly points out is that there is something profoundly selfish in not sharing.

    Zuckerberg's Law is unlikely to hold true in the long run: we'll run out of information to disclose if we keep doubling it every year. But there is no doubt that five years from now, when my children are teenagers, they will be comfortable living in public in ways that will astound and alarm their parents. I can already imagine how powerful the instinct to worry about predators and compromising photos will be. But it will be our responsibility to keep that instinct in check and to recognize that their increasingly public existence brings more promise than peril. We have to learn how to break with that most elemental of parental commandments: Don't talk to strangers. It turns out that strangers have a lot to give us that's worthwhile, and we to them.

    Still, talking to strangers is different from handing over a set of your house keys. We're learning how to draw the line between those extremes, and it's a line that each of us will draw in different ways. That we get to make these decisions for ourselves is a step forward; the valley is a much richer and more connected place than the old divide between privacy and celebrity worship was. But it is going to take some time to learn how to live there.

    This is an expanded version of an article that ran in the May 31, 2010 issue of TIME. Johnson's seventh book, Where Good Ideas Come From, will be published in October

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