After I wrote this column about Facebook I found I had extra bonus thoughts so I decided to put at least a few of them here.
When Gawker Media announced that all employees we were required to have Facebook profiles, in 2007, some of my coworkers were decidedly un-thrilled at this encroachment on their private lives. Others shrugged; they’d already been on Facebook for ages. I was somewhere between the two camps — I’d lived through the heyday of Friendster, I didn’t feel a pressing need to publish a list of my favorite bands again — so I put up a perfunctory profile, leaving lots of information fields blank. I didn’t even start posting status updates or playing Lexulous (then Scrabulous) til that summer, when I changed my relationship status to “single.” By the time I changed my Employer field to “self/none,” a few months later, a lot of other things had changed too; I won’t bore you with the details but boy are they ever available online.
During this period I learned, the hard way, that people will disperse and twist any available morsel of information about you if that’s what they want to do. But I also learned that having more personal information available, not less, works as a defense strategy. If you’re consistent and transparent in your online and offline life, you have nothing to fear from exposure. It didn’t feel great to have transparency thrust upon me, but this was how I learned that being the same person across all platforms is actually the only sane way to use the Internet.
I was reminded of this personal learning curve during the last few weeks, as “online privacy” once again became the controversy of the moment. Facebook rolled out new privacy settings last month and once again they were lambasted for making lots more data from their 500 million users more available than ever. Facebook has since revamped the settings in response to the chorus of panicky criticism, making it slightly easier for its users to figure out how to go into their profiles and tweak settings so that they can at least maintain the illusion that not everything they post is available to anyone who wants to see it (as a former gossip gossip reporter I know how easy it is to ferret out information from behind the flimsy wall of a limited-access online profile.)
As the skirmishes between Facebook and its critics continue, I think the most interesting part of the debate isn’t whether Facebook has gone too far; it’s why people still care so much about “privacy.”
Or do we care? A new site, YourOpenBook, searches the status updates of all Facebook users who’ve — purposely or unwittingly – left the new default public settings in place. “I’m gay” and “feeling horney [sic]” are the most popular searches, last time I checked, and the results they pull up would seem to indicate that more and more people care less and less about who knows that they’re currently masturbating. And only 30,000 people actually quit Facebook as a result of the privacy changes.
But alarmist privacy panic is always politically useful, especially for conservatives who want to rile people who probably only use Facebook to remember their grandchildren’s birthdays: in the California attorney general’s race, where former chief Facebook privacy officer Chris Kelly is being attacked by his opponent for “releasing your private information.” Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers is mulling a congressional hearing on the matter, and other lawmakers have said they believe Facebook shouldn’t make users’ information public by default.
While it might be tempting to presume that there’s some “silent majority” out there that cares about this, I think it’s likelier that there’s a not-particularly-internet-savvy group of people who misunderstand the issues at hand and only think they care because they’ve been led to equate online openness with identity theft. For people who’ve been online for a while, the real issue is that it’s simultaneously becoming less socially acceptable and less practically possible to maintain separate online and offline selves.
For people who came of age online, keeping a username or avatar or online persona – “SmileyGirl323” “BigJimDorito,” etc. – separate from one’s meatspace self long ago began to seem natural. Well, sorry, Smileyetc, but now it’s time for those divided personality-halves to merge. It’s time to stop letting our online selves get away with things our “real selves” would never do. It’s time to stop posting photos we wouldn’t want everyone to see and typing things we wouldn’t want everyone to know we’ve said. If you want to keep a nasty thought or embarrassing anecdote private, there’s an easy, 100% guaranteed safe way to do that, and it’s not a new app or functionality — it’s Internet abstinence. If you’re not comfortable letting the world see what you’re really like, you shouldn’t be online at all.
Certainly there’s a risk involved in being ourselves online. “What about my job?” I can hear you saying. “I don’t want my middle school students to know about my S&M hobby.” “I don’t want my wife to know how often I comment on Twilight messageboards.” “I don’t want my employer to know about the batty all-caps comments I leave on Salon articles.” I feel your pain, certainly. It was remarkably un-fun for me to have excerpts of my stupid, besotted secret blog published in the New York Post and the New York Times three years ago. But I’m glad it happened, because now I know that I need to make sure that everything I write and make available online is something I’d be okay, even if begrudgingly okay, with sharing with the world.