Dear public at large
Last week I spoke about the trade-off we make nowadays when it comes to our privacy. I would like to return to that subject now, although approaching it from a very different angle.
In the days before computers, before the Internet, before Facebook… we had these things called diaries (or journals if you’re in the US) where one recorded one’s most intimate thoughts and opinions. Often these diaries came with a lock and key, to keep intruders out. The diary was the very epitome of privacy, to invade that was a crime almost worthy of capital punishment.
Now, not only do diaries not have locks and keys… but they’re open for comments. Hundreds of sites exist online where one can start a diary-like blog (such as Livejournal and OpenDiary). Users write entries and their friends (and sometimes complete strangers) can read and respond to them. Instead of writing “dear diary”, users are instead addressing their most intimate thoughts to the world at large, seemingly unaware of the direct clash this causes between what is private and what is public… a crash so loud you can hear the clanging right though cyber space.
One such resounding clang is an incident I was witness to recently. A friend of mine, “Stacey”, hooked up with an ex-boyfriend. Another friend, “John”, having access to her livejournal where she reported this, became concerned. He happened to talk about this concern with a third party. When Stacey found out all hell broke loose. She couldn’t believe that her “trust had been violated” and what was said in the sacred sanctity of her Livejournal had been spread into real life. But what sacred sanctity is it really when it is published out there before the eyes of 43 people she calls friends?
The term “friend” is used often online to refer to those we know, want to know or have met a few times in real life. It is hardly the intimate circle one would have thought it was years ago. It is hardly a group of people we would necessarily let into our homes, into our private lives. And yet we tell them everything. From our deepest, darkest secrets to our hopes, dreams and aspirations.
According to Psychology Today writer Carlin Flora such public diaries are “eroding our notions of private identity”.
“Telling secrets can be therapeutic,” she says, “but when confession targets the masses, what’s really being processed, and who benefits from the disclosure?”
She quotes Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner’s explanation of why we’re so willing to disclose our secrets online, “When you’re alone in a room and typing on a computer, it’s easy to forget there’s somebody on the other end of the line and become oblivious to the consequences of sharing information”.
Shakespeare said that “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players”. Never has this been more true than in blogosphere where one wants to be interesting, wants to have a narrative, wants to be a main character. And this means sharing of oneself, often more than one would be comfortable with face-to-face. It also means getting involved in the narrative beyond fear of consequence.
John B Thompson in his book The Media and Modernity (1995: 210) explains, “We are all unofficial biographers of ourselves, for it is only by constructing a story, however loosely strung together, that we are able to form a sense of who we are and of what our future may be.”
In the digital age, we have the ability to make these stories public, we have the ability to have others help us co-construct them (through comments and interaction). And in exchange for that ability… we are seemingly willing to risk the story falling into the wrong hands. A small price to pay?