The Decade Of Publicy

I am aware that my recent inquiries into privacy and ‘publicy’ are a bit anthropological at their core, rather than technological or software-design based. Claude Lévi-Strauss sets the stage for this inquiry, perhaps, when he wrote “The anthropology of the future is the study of ourselves.”

The anthropology of the future is the study of ourselves.

Earlier, in the middle of the ’00s, I used to talk about social architecture as a set of design principles for social tools grounded in the way that we are wired, and how we can be bettered by the augmented sociality that social tools offer. But I feel that we have to go deeper than this architectural metaphor, just as city planners and architects need to step outside of the materials and styles of buildings and public spaces to understand what people are doing, living in proximity. They have to get back to what buildings and cities are used for, what they are good for, and to do that, they have to study people, not bricks. Rheinhold Niebuhr was getting at this when he said city planners had to get past the self-deception he called ‘the doctrine of salvation by bricks.’

And in the case of the new social web, we need to get past the comforting metaphors of online public spaces, and take a hard look at what what people are really up to, online.

Revisiting Privacy

Our cultural principles of privacy are derived from our existence in space. People share physical space, both natural and human made, and we require space to live, walk, and interact.

This will be the decade when publicy displaces privacy, online and off.

In everyday life we come in contact with other people all the time in public and private spaces, like streets, trains, offices, restaurants, stores, and homes. We have developed elaborate social codes about how we act in such places. We excuse ourselves when we bump into others or otherwise touch them unintentionally.

In every culture, social mores have arisen to allow people to interact without causing offense while sharing public spaces. It is considered rude to stare at people in most cultures, for example, and in many cultures people – both men and women – go to great lengths to conceal their bodies, faces, or even the contour of the body below the clothes. Some well-known examples, include these:

  • Male Tuareg Berbers, for example, cover their mouths even when eating except when alone with family, while the women go unveiled. 
  • Orthodox Jewish women that follow the practices of tzniut must cover their hair when in public, so many wear wigs, scarfs, or other head coverings.

In most cultures, these principles include some rights to personal space, and the right to conceal parts of the body from others’ view. This leads to problematic cultural conflicts, like the current trends in France to prohibit various sorts of Islamic face coverings, which are viewed by many as ‘unfrench’.

Much of what we consider as online privacy is considered analogous to what goes on in public spaces. We start with the premise that individuals online have the right to reveal as little or as much of their personal information, backgrounds or interests, in a way that parallels similar rights in face to face public interactions.

However, online interactions aren’t really based on sharing space. All the metaphorical mumbo jumbo about online ‘spaces’ is just that: metaphors. And not particularly apt ones. Because there is no ‘space’ in which we live online. There is no equivalent, really, of passing through a restaurant, in our online world. Hanging out on Twitter, for example, is really not like that, in public terms.

And there is nothing like a ‘private home’ online, because we don’t sleep there, and we don’t need toilets or showers there. So a lot of the privacy issues in the real world – like what the police can seize without a warrant, or whether you have to admit your identity when asked – don’t really play online. Online privacy is seldom about private property, but about access to information.

Consider that in a real-world restaurant, I cannot cloak my presence, because we don’t yet have invisibility, or the Mystique-like ability to appear to be someone else. If I am present, I can be seen. I might try to wear large sunglasses, or a hat, but otherwise I am there for people to see. But of course, if I pass into a VIP lounge in the back of the restaurant, I might drop my hat and sunglasses, since I am in a different public space, one with different norms.

And in real-world social interaction there are some facts about yourself that are impossible or socially unacceptable to conceal.

Gender is so fundamental to human society that pronouns are based on them in English, and other speech constructs in other languages. We can’t even talk about or with people if we don’t know whether they are male or female. 

In contemporary US society it is considered a given that everyone will reveal their marital state, or their dating situation, if asked. People who intentionally conceal being married, for example, are presumed to be immoral, not super private: it’s not a topic that is considered appropriate for privacy. (Note: this is why there is such a widespread furor about the FaceBook ‘It’s complicated’ datum.)

We are still in a gray zone, culturally, with regard to sexual orientation or sexual availability. Many gay men and lesbian women are still living a clouded life, where ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ is still the order of the day, and not just in the military. In other segments of society, however, being less than fully out if you are gay or lesbian is a social faux pas.

Many Publics

The idea that we live in a social sphere involving many potentially overlapping ‘publics’ has been discussed widely, and explored profitably by folks like Kevin Marks and danah boyd.  The real world examples – where I pass from the restaurant to a VIP lounge, discarding sunglasses – give a misleading sense of equivalence between the physical world and the online. But let’s examine the notion of publics, and see what we can carry over into the online, social web.

These streams of updates don’t have to add up to a picture that defines the individual, any more that we are defined by the stamps on our passports or the complete sequence of hats we have owned.

The notion that I can participate in different publics – different social milieus – is a well worn one. In the online sense, however, this has a distinctly different take.

Online interaction is not actually based on shared space. The metaphor fails because the actual actions and reactions tied to shared physical space don’t play online. There is no ‘walking into a restaurant’ online.

When I post my location at a specific restaurant on Gowalla, Brightkite or Foursquare, only those that are sharing my thread are aware of me being there, and even then, only those online at that time. In the real world, everyone physically present at the restaurant can turn their head and see me, even if I would rather that they don’t.

Online, we share time, not space. We are not actually in a restaurant together: we are using Brightkite, and I am playing along with the premises of the social conventions of Brightkite by posting that I am in Momofuku, The Slanted Door, or Fatty Crab.

Online, only those who are part of the publics associated with the timelines I am posting to are invited to know I am in that restaurant.

And I am not defining the norms of that public. I am instead chosing to go along with its conventions, and by extension, endorsing them, by posting my status updates there.

In privacy-oriented (or real-world space-oriented) terms, I would be considered as revealing information about myself, in accordance with the physical make up of that specific physical locale.

In publicy-oriented (or online time-oriented) terms, I am according with the conventions of this specific tool’s take on shared time. In the case of Brightkite, it is about geolocation, so to participate I post that I am sitting down to ramen at Momofuku.

So, in the actual Momofuku, I have to reveal enough about my identity to claim my reserved table, and pay for my dinner by credit card. And anyone passing by can see that I am dining with my friend Gregarious, or an ex-girlfriend, or Al Gore.

But, on Brightkite, there is no way that someone can see who I am eating with, or what I ordered. If I want to play along with the conventions of the specific tool, or the strictures of the public associated with that tool, I might upload a picture of Gregarious or my Quaking Beef. And, with different tools, that involves different publics, I might share the music I heard there, the wine we drank, or the glorious sex I had after dinner.

From a privacy viewpoint, this fracturing of the totality of experience is viewed as selectively revealing potentially overlapping classes of information about my personal life with different subsets of my world. In the privacy take on the world, a person might be defined as the union of all the personalities they present to the world. People’s personalities in this worldview are thought of as atomic, but multifaceted. And of course, if the various facets don’t align, the person is seen as flawed, pathological, or evil.

From a publicy viewpoint, something very different is going on. In this zeitgeist a person has social contracts within various online publics, and these are based on norms of behavior, not of layers of privacy. In these online publics, different sorts of personal status – sexual preferences, food choices, geographic location – exist to be shared with those that inhabit the publics. So, in this worldview, people are the union of a collection of social contracts, each of which is self-defined, and self-referential. The norms and mores of a foodist service – eat everything and post everything you eat – may be completely distinct from those about sexual interests, or sports, or social technology on the web. These streams of updates don’t have to add up to a picture that defines the individual, any more that we are defined by the stamps on our passports or the complete sequence of hats we have owned.

In this worldview, a person is a network of identities, each defined in the context of the form factor of a specific social publics. There is no atomic personality, per se, just the assumption that people shift from one public self to another as needed.

This is something like what happens to people that speak multiple languages fluently. In English, Luigi might be more reserved than when he speaks Italian, because the cultural milieu in which he learned and uses the two languages are very different. In such a case we wouldn’t say that Luigi is a fake, two-faced or duplicitous because of these changes in his manner. And the only ones that are capable of seeing the two Luigis are those that are themselves fluent in English and Italian. Luigi’s monoglot friends might never know.

Passing Into Publicy: A New Decade

Here, at the start of 2010, a new decade, we should anticipate significant blowback from the transition to an online world based on publicy. It is not ‘the death of privacy’ per se, an idea that is  rumbling around in the commentariat. It is not that notions of privacy will disappear. Privacy is as deeply enculturated in our social wiring as pronouns.

This will be a fracturing of the premises of privacy, and a slow rejection of the metaphors of shared space.

What is happening is the superimposition of publicy on top of, and partly obscuring, privacy. Those raised in this brave new world are already living in a cultural context based on publicy, and therefore they are running afoul of social conventions based on privacy. That’s why young people find job offers rescinded when pictures of drunken or naked pictures are discovered on their Facebook pages. Their prospective employers are judging their actions from a privacy-based attitude, in which the facets of an online self are averaged, instead of being considered as a constellation of selves. Publicy says that each self exists in a particular social context, and all such contracts are independent.

This carries over into the nature of online relationships. A common refrain in the Sunday supplements is that online relationships aren’t as ‘real’ as offline. This may be a reaction to the demands that online social contracts imply, many of which are unlike those in the offline world.

It’s as if we are gaining the ability to see into the ultraviolet and infrared ends of the social spectrum when we are online, and in some contexts we are dropping out yellows or reds. To those tied to the visible color spectrum we are habituated to, this new sort of vision will be ‘irreal’. But ultraviolet has always existed: we just couldn’t see it before.

Some will dismiss my theorizing as a simple reprise of cultural relativism, making the case that all cultures can only be understood in their own cultural terms. I am making part of that case, in essence, by saying that the mores inherent in online social contracts are self-defined, and any individual’s participation in a specific online public does not have to be justified in a global way, any more than the cultural mores of the Berber Tuaregs need to be justified from the perspective of modern Western norms.

This will be a fracturing of the premises of privacy, and a slow rejection of the metaphors of shared space. The principles of publicy are derived from the intersection of infinite publics and our shared experience of time online, through media like Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr. The innate capability we have to shift in a heartbeat from a given public, and our corresponding persona, to another, is now being accelerated by streaming social tools. This will be the decade when publicy displaces privacy, online and off.

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