We Live in Public

This past week, Facebook users had another one of their patented uprisings, this time crying foul over the purportedly confounding privacy settings that make it hard for people to switch away from the “everyone sees everything” default settings. Out of anger about the great “invasion of privacy” phantom, thousands of users have vowed to delete their Facebook accounts in protest.

It was enough to force Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to call a press conference, apologize, and institute changes such as requiring only minimal information to be visible when people search for others (name, profile picture, and gender). Facebook had earlier required users to make more of their information public.

But who are we kidding? Why would anyone sign up for Facebook if they were worried about privacy? Isn’t the whole point of Facebook to put yourself out to the world via status updates, photos, and “likes”? I question whether the 10 million people who joined Facebook in April (and the 500 million worldwide who use the site) are in any way concerned about “privacy” at all.

Talk of privacy is a joke and an absurdity when people are getting up each morning to voraciously begin a day of tweets, or to post a thought about the weather on Facebook, or to blog about what they did over the weekend (or to blog about most anything, for that matter). If you want privacy, quit putting anything of yourself on the Internet! The Internet is inescapably, necessarily, and wonderfully public. It is open, free, limitless. But we can’t have our cake and eat it too.

I think a lot of times the privacy “issue” is really just a scapegoat/smokescreen that covers up for our own frightful inclinations toward exhibitionism. We decry Facebook’s Orwellian, oppressive invasion of privacy because our own willingness to daily cede ourselves to the public performances of Internet life scare us a little bit. We paint the whole “we live in public” thing as a travesty, a lamentable byproduct of the digital age. But all along we roll with it, urge it on, and expand its possibility with every passing post, tweet, or status update.

In the 2008 documentary film, We Live in Public, filmmaker Ondi Timoner examines the life and work of Internet pioneer/visionary/prophet Josh Harris. The film shows his 1999 project “Quiet: We Live in Public,” which was a NYC art installation piece that invited 100 volunteers to live in an underground bunker (Japanese pod hotel-style, or concentration camp-style, depending on how you look at it) and have every second of their lives taped for a month. A cultural descendant of Bentham’s Panopticon, Warhol’s Factory, Orwell’s 1984, and MTV’s The Real World, Harris’ project was painstakingly crafted to encourage over-the-top exhibitionism that would inevitably lead to fights, chaos, and “I can never be alone!” existential breakdown. It was trying to make some sort of point about how the Internet will probably end up like this–everyone living publicly for everyone else–and that this could make us all lose our minds.

Later in the film, we see Harris’ next big “art project/exploration of privacy.” He wires his own house with tons of surveillance cameras–in the bedroom, the bathroom, the toilets, etc. He and his girlfriend go about their life together as a “normal couple,” but broadcast every moment of it live on the Internet, while also chatting with their growing fan community watching their every move. Naturally, the experience takes its toll on their relationship. Their Internet fanbase becomes the third person in their relationship, and the most important one. After they have a fight on camera, they rush to their respective computers to see what the audience is saying about it. “Make him sleep on the sofa!” seems to be the consensus, so that’s what she does. It’s life lived through social networking; It’s community storytelling. Harris and his girlfriend don’t last, of course, but they got some great Internet celebrity out of the arrangement.

We Live in Public is an insightful but ridiculous film. It correctly theorizes that the Internet is pushing culture in the direction of vast openness and away from old notions of privacy. But–ridiculously–it assumes this will be some sort of jarring, fascist, unwelcome surprise, or that we won’t all gleefully collude in the erosion of privacy. We will, and we are.

Half a billion people are on Facebook. And they are there for reasons that have much more to do with unabashed exhibitionism than with the preservation of interior, personal, and private existence.

10 responses to “We Live in Public

  1. Reminds me of a time someone asked who was right. Orwell or Huxley?

    Huxley of course. We willingly choose every part of his dystopian future.

  2. shakespeherian

    I’m on Facebook to stay in contact with friends around the world. I am not on Facebook so that strangers, advertisers, or human resource departments can learn about me. I’m not sure why this distinction is difficult to maintain?

  3. I think the person Lincoln is paraphrasing is Neil Postman, as he was the one to ask that question in “Amusing Ourselves To Death”. Postman was spot on.

    I don’t agree completely about your assessment of Facebook. I don’t share a lot of information on there, and basically use it as a virtual embassy in order to find and be found by long-lost friends. Once we’ve established contact communication generally moves off of Facebook. I keep everything private and preemptively block people with whom I want no contact.

    The larger issue to which you point, however, seems to be a general erosion of privacy and increase of exhibitionism. That, I would suggest, has much more to do with our capitalist system than the Internet; while there were early sites like Jennicam that offered unfettered 24-hour-access to Jenni’s life (including the occasional moment of prurient interest), it really only took off when the internet was monetized. We pay for pleasure, and the only limits seem to be those set by the payer’s bank balance. I’d argue that the internet turns us far more into voyeurs than exhibitionists, as it maintains some suggestion of anonymity. I can browse through thousands of my friends’ friends Facebook pages, and there is no way for them to know I’ve done so. I post anonymously in internet forums and say whatever I want with little fear of real-world consequence. The narcissistic outpourings to which you refer are a small (albeit growing) portion of the content of the net. It’s the throng of people consuming it for entertainment value I wonder (and worry) about.

  4. Well, I’m certainly mindful of what I put on Facebook for the whole world to see (pictures, statuses, etc.). I have rules for myself (no negativity, etc.), but my privacy concerns with Facebook are more about the company selling my personal information to outside vendors. That’s the real problem here. I don’t post things I wouldn’t be comfortable with my mother or boss seeing, but my information being sold? No thanks. That’s the privacy concern.

  5. I would also disagree with your assessment of facebook users. I have several friends who were on it to keep up with friends, and they closed their accounts over recent months once privacy concerns came up.

    I too keep my information private – only viewable by friends. It’s like a blog, yes, very public, but very public to friends only. Thus I also do not accept all friend requests – only the people I would stop to talk to if I saw them on the street.

  6. “But who are we kidding? Why would anyone sign up for Facebook if they were worried about privacy? Isn’t the whole point of Facebook to put yourself out to the world via status updates, photos, and “likes”?”

    uh, No. The whole point of Facebook has always been to share to your private circle of “friends” that you “approve”. That’s it. No unapproved people should be able to have access to your information.

    Over time Facebook has systematically undone this by changing it’s privacy settings often and without reason (except to it’s own purse). They have changed the the originally default option of “all private” to something other than that – with no clear definition of what has changed, and no simple way of changing it back.

    The privacy settings are a maze of options that are difficult even for a a very technical person such as myself to sift through.

    That’s why I have deleted my Facebook account and have encouraged other to do so.

    I have no problem with public forums. I have a Twitter, Last.fm, Flickr account among others that are open for anyone to see. What I do have a problem with is a service that claims to be private and closed and then changes on a whim without and clear, or easy way to control, or opt out.

    Facebook would save itself a lot of headache if it would just go back to the default option of making everything private and then let the user “opt-in” to what they want to make public.

  7. I agree. My brother-in-law agrees. My sister reservedly agrees.

    Great thoughts. I love that you dropped the Panopticon in there. Wonderful.

  8. most of the time I agree with your posts. This time, well i understand where you are coming from but i dont’ agree.

    the majority of facebook users get a facebook to share and be open only to a select number of users. I think at a certain level the internet culture has pushed us to be more lax on our privacy and yes, facebook does help us do that. However, I think the ability to monitor and know who exactly is seeing the information we put out is something that we can’t just glaze over. If i can control who sees my information (to the point where i too can find them and see all their information too) then i’ll be more incline to share more about myself- name, number, address, etc. That is because i want the people who I like and who I want to know (i.e. ‘friends’) to feel free to get to know me or keep in contact with me. on the other side, I have an open blog and twitter. Though i enjoy the ability to connect with different parts of the world and with ppl i don’t know, i won’t put certain information I’m not comfortable everyone knowing.
    A day is coming when privacy no longer exists and we all become open books, but that time has not come yet and the suspicion we have when we hear of someone we don’t know having ‘private’ information is an indication of that.

    Unfortunately, our dependency on social networking sites like facebook ever increases the opportunity costs of leaving our accounts for the sake of privacy and- whether or not we like it, it’s becoming obvious that facebook has an infinite amount of information on an infinite amount of people and they have the ability to do what they will with it. That is something to be more concerned about.

  9. I’ve dialogued with your post here.

  10. Lovely example of a logically fallacious diatribe utilizing the “straw man” tactic to write a classic, inflammatory opinion piece that equates to little more than emotional criticism. The key issues proposed by the privacy group critiqued are completely ignored, and whatever alternate issues suggested are inadequately proposed, articulated, researched, substantiated, or explored in any meaningful manner.

    As a facebook user with privacy settings that prevent my many acquaintances – all of whom I actually know from meeting them in person – from seeing all my information at any given time, I value boundaries, circles of friendship, and levels of sharing chosen for appropriate social context, level of anonymity, degree of safety, etc., and Facebook doesn’t change or destroy that even if it does create a different milieu in which to evaluate it. “Exhibitionism” and inappropriate social sharing is not only culturally defined, but is fluid inter- and intra-personally as well as developmentally.

    In other words, dude, get over yourself. I read something like this and wonder, “Really? This is what you have your panties in a wad about? Get some therapy and resolve your intra-psychic issues instead of projecting them on everyone else.” But that probably isn’t a very charitable response either, is it? Maybe I should just suggest the name of a good therapist.

    Shutting up now.

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