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What does it mean that digital technologies are increasingly a part of...
Buried in an editorial about playwright Wendy Wasserman’s secrecy-laden life:
Implicit in Mr. Rich’s lament and my own pursuit of Wasserstein’s essential truths is the notion that secrets are inevitably harmful and the desire for privacy somehow suspect, and neurotic, if not downright nefarious.
BUT maybe secrecy and privacy have become too easily conflated when they are, in fact, quite different. Before endless sharing and complete transparency became the norm, it was understood that privacy was a kind of sanctuary, a refuge from the selves we presented to the world. Embarrassing family snapshots weren’t unexpectedly tagged on the Internet; you could hide your age if you were so inclined. Wendy Wasserstein’s life certainly suggests the possibility that she treated her private life as a kind of protected space.
Today we baby boomers worry that nothing is hidden, except maybe the Internet identities our children might assume. We thought we wanted openness, full transparency, in all realms. Our parents were so leery of outside scrutiny that mundane matters were given the status of high-level security; my husband’s mother forbade her children to reveal any illness more serious than a cold.
For my parents’ generation, secrecy was a way to survive; dwelling on the past could only drag you down. That belief served my mother well: now in her 80s, she survived Auschwitz (but lost her parents there) and went on to travel the world, become a shrewd businesswoman, have a family and carry on after the deaths of two remarkable husbands. She’s had an epic life containing monumental dislocation and loss as well as much satisfaction.
I am always amazed at how few social tools have provisions for secrecy, and only the weakest supports for privacy, grafted on as an afterthought.
A disturbing trend, where police will prosecute those that record their public actions based on anti-wiretapping statutes:
Wendy McIlroy, Are Cameras The New Guns?
In response to a flood of Facebook and YouTube videos that depict police abuse, a new trend in law enforcement is gaining popularity. In at least three states, it is now illegal to record any on-duty police officer.
Even if the encounter involves you and may be necessary to your defense, and even if the recording is on a public street where no expectation of privacy exists.
The legal justification for arresting the “shooter” rests on existing wiretapping or eavesdropping laws, with statutes against obstructing law enforcement sometimes cited. Illinois, Massachusetts, and Maryland are among the 12 states in which all parties must consent for a recording to be legal unless, as with TV news crews, it is obvious to all that recording is underway. Since the police do not consent, the camera-wielder can be arrested. Most all-party-consent states also include an exception for recording in public places where “no expectation of privacy exists” (Illinois does not) but in practice this exception is not being recognized.
There is a litany of cases where individuals have been charged with felonies — wiretapping is a federal crime — for recording belligerent police officers overstepping the bounds.
So, here we have a case where the police would like to make public activities — pulling over a driver on a highway, or frisking teenagers on a city street — private, or even secret.
However, citizen souveillance — where bystanders capture police actions via cell phone cameras — have become an important check on police abuse. Consider Rodney King, or the G-20 bystander, Ian Tomlinson, who died after a police beating in London last year.
The US has a fairly deep case law about public recording — no one is required to ask or receive permission to take pictures or video of public places: places where it is generally understood to be public — but the police have a narrow and immoral agenda. They want to conceal their actions, and we really need federal protections. However, in a time when President Obama is holding on to the excesses of Bush’s imperial presidency, don’t expect any action on this front.
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.
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:
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.
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.
"Gabriel García Márquez once wrote, ‘Everyone has three lives: a public life, a private life, and a secret life’, a line that seems to resonate with how we live our lives today, and perhaps how we have lived since the start of human society."Gabriel García Márquez once wrote,’Everyone has three lives: a public life, a private life, and a secret life’, a line that seems to resonate with how we live our lives today, and perhaps how we have lived since the start of human society.
In everyday speech, we have terms that relate to keeping information private or secret. We all have an intuitive sense for privacy and secrecy, and they are caught up in our sense of self, and our notions of intimacy.
Privacy concerns are constantly in the headlines, like today’s NY Times piece about the possible use of ‘full body scanners’ to peer beneath our clothes as a response to the Abdulmutallab bomb attempt. There is a potentially irresolvable gap between the US Government’s desire to increase security and our natural reluctance to have strangers see beneath our clothes.
There is a fundamentally Western perception of rights of privacy — the right to seclude oneself — as in the privacy of one’s home — and to conceal information from other people and the state. This includes the right to selectively decide what to reveal about oneself. The notion of what sorts of information may be kept private differs widely across cultures, and while some governments have established laws ensuring privacy rights, many do not. And other laws — like tax laws — explicitly require access to information that individuals might otherwise want to keep private.
Our ideas of privacy are not universal, and can’t be translated well into languages where cultural norms vary greatly. For example, physical modesty varies greatly across cultures, ranging from nearly naked models on catwalks or the average person on a Miami beach, to women in Islamic countries covering their body, hair, arms, legs, and even the face. But even within a country like the US, bodily modesty varies enormously.
We find similar variability in people’s notions of privacy online. Some people are the web equivalent of nudists: they live very open lives on the web, revealing the intimate details of their relationships, what they think of friends and co-workers, their interactions with family and authorities. But, as in the Márquez quote, even these apparently wide open web denizens may keep some things private, or secret.
Secrecy carries connotations beyond those linked to privacy. Secrets are often shared, and as such are social objects that link those sharing the secrets together, and excluding others. Secrecy also may imply shame, or the likelihood of repercussions if the secret is revealed. This dimension of secrecy does overlap with some of the deeper motivations for personal privacy. Lastly, corporations and governments have and keep secrets, like the Coca Cola formula or cell phone recordings of prisoners at Guantanamo. And of course, repressive governments may attempt to conceal large parts of what is going on elsewhere from their citizens, like the the way that China is selectively blocking access to the web.
Obviously secrecy and privacy are critically important aspects of what is happening on the web, and much of the design of social tools is based on certain premises about privacy and secrecy, and the role that they play in social interactions.
The idea of publicy is no more than this: rather than concealing things, and limiting access to those explicitly invited, tools based on publicy default to things being open and with open access.Consider the core premises of pre-web and Web 1.0 era collaborative tools, which are still the major form of enterprise software. These are based on the premise that an individual’s rights and responsibilities are based on group membership, and the role that individuals play within these groups.
For example, if I am an employee of XYZ Inc, I might be invited to work on a Basecamp project entitled ‘Johnson Widgets’ and the owner of the Basecamp account gives me the capability to comment on posts, upload files, and so on, but not to delete or edits other people’s contributions. Once I made privy to the Johnson project, information defaults to being available to all participants, but the project and all it’s contents are secrets concealed to those outside the group.
The basis of future web culture and the social tools that enable it to exist will be publicy, not privacy or secrecy.Members of the Johnson company — XYZ’s clients — may also be invited to work in the project. Basecamp and other collaborative tools allow users to make certain posts ‘private’ — meaning concealed from certain group members. For example, I could post something and make it visible only to XZY staff and not visible to Johnson staff.
My point is not some analysis of the specifics of Basecamp. Instead, my interest is privacy and secrecy in our web interactions. Web 1.0 and earlier collaborative tools are strongly biased toward secrecy and privacy. Web 2.0 tools are a mixed-up blending of privacy and secrecy principles with the mass openness of web publishing. And now, as we are moving into a new era of the web based on social tools, what will the major structuring principles be? What core aspects of social interaction will form the basis of what is coming now?
The fundamental core of social tools is that the individual comes first: our rights and responsibilities in social tools are not derived from membership in groups (in general), but are unalienable. The baseline rights are privacy-tinged — what to include in your profile — but in general one’s stream obviates the profile. And then, the major social angle in social tools is deciding who matter: who to follow. That is a public choice, and this is the primary bond that makes a social matrix from individuals.
There is a countervailing trend away from privacy and secrecy and toward openness and transparency, both in the corporate and government sectors. And on the web, we have had several major steps forward in social tools that suggest at least the outlines of a complement, or opposite, to privacy and secrecy: publicy.
The idea of publicy is no more than this: rather than concealing things, and limiting access to those explicitly invited, tools based on publicy default to things being open and with open access.
Tumblr is a tool based on publicy. So is Twitter. Tumblr blogs and Twitter accounts default to open unless the user takes great efforts, and as a result the resulting communities are based on sharing of posts rather than membership in closed groups.
The open sharing model of Twitter and Tumblr will be the dominant motif of all successful social tools of the next decade.As I have said in the past the open sharing model of Twitter and Tumblr will be the dominant motif of all successful social tools of the next decade. This will be the publicy decade, where network effects are induced by growing awareness of the benefits of publicy and the negatives of privacy and secrecy-based social tools, customs, and institutions.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not calling for an end to privacy or secrets. They have their place, just as I would not want to make women into men (or vice versa) in the name of equality. What I am saying, however, is this: the basis of future web culture and the social tools that enable it to exist will be publicy, not privacy or secrecy.