It’s a Transparent Society, So Get Naked

My latest commentary for public radio’s "Marketplace" aired today. It is headlined, It’s a Transparent Society, So Get Naked.

Here’s a direct link to the audio. Here’s the page that has link to audio and the text. Text below:

Science-fiction author David Brin warned a decade ago that in the future, privacy would be impossible. Our best option would be to live in a "transparent society." Welcome to the future.

Teens and adults today are choosing to publicize where they live, what they believe in, what their friends are like. On the Internet, it’s easier than ever to disclose yourself. Yet we always hear the same thing from concerned parents and employers: What’s happening to privacy?!

It’s easy to dismiss today’s hyper-publicness as the doings of rash teenagers, or egomaniacal bloggers obsessed with their personal minutia — easy, and wrong. In fact, a rational cost-benefit analysis shows good reasons to live a naked life. That’s because there are benefits to transparency.                                                                                                     

Take increased social connectedness. Losing track of childhood friends used to signify adulthood. Now, every old friend is a Google search away. Soon, 50-somethings may still be in touch with their high-school friends. And by disclosing your passions online, you might even make new friends. I know I have. Openness brings people together.

Look, it’s true that transparency has its costs. Down the road, today’s teens may regret posting those drunk pictures and gratuitous blog entries. But since 97 percent of teens and tweens say they belong to a social network, everybody will have a screw-up or two from their adolescence.

This creates what some call "Mutually Assured Embarrassment": If you smear me with that post I wrote at age 15, I’ll spread photos of you sucking on a beer bong.

And transparency isn’t all-or-nothing. Today’s networks have detailed privacy settings you control. As blogger Jeff Jarvis has put it, "Publicness is good so long as we decide how public we want to be." Like it or not, the transparent society is here.

Most of my friends are out on the Web, where we tell the world who we are and what we think. Those who are still fully clothed shouldn’t be surprised if folks start asking, "What are you trying to hide?"

6 comments on “It’s a Transparent Society, So Get Naked
  • Had an interesting (in-person) conversation about this the other day. The initial topic was “Why would anyone use Twitter?” and it evolved into “is the desire for public exposure generational or age-related.” In other words, as young people get older and busy with career, kids, and other interests, will they spend less time on these things? Or because they grew up with it, will it remain an important factor in their lives? Of course, some will continue to use it because it benefits them in their careers, but that is only true for certain types of careers.

    So, I’m interested to hear what you think about that question, but also I’d like to hear more elaboration on the actual benefits of this self-disclosure. OK, maybe I make new friends (I don’t really have much time for new friends); maybe an old classmate contacts me (whatever). So… what else?

  • I am concerned less about my relative “loss of privacy” than I would about “data security”. All forms of web access invariably leave a user’s trail. But that’s a fait accompli. I see it as a trade-off for allowing me to access useful information *from the cloud*. That trackback architecture and its inevitability go to dissuade perverse online transgressions. But that’s where I think, the user passivity ends.

    Can that be a license for practically everyone to access personal information and exploit it for other than a stated purpose? Facebook and other social networks (“SN”) create a massive database ostensibly for bringing people together, then go on to freely enable unauthorized access of it – mine, process and monetize it for others to target you. When not expressly opted in, is this not clear breach of security? Of course, you can control the type of info you offer up, but that would mean restricted access to people with whom you want to share it as well, defeating the very purpose of SN.

    Data violators can’t be forgiven in the name of pervasiveness of the open source Web. Can someone scoff at our desire to uphold dignity just because we prefer an online medium for basic human bonding? Then that’s buggy architecture if not flawed technology.

    Note. Here I am not even talking about criminals that tear down firewalls and hack their way through.

  • I’ve been online since the late 1980s (this intertube stuff isn’t all that new really).

    The idea of a transparent society sounds nice, until some asshole comes along, singles you out, and completely violates your life/identity. It happened to me with an ex-boss, who thought he was entitled to break into all of my private mail for a year or two, dumpster dive through my private and family life, and share it with other people who never worked for him. Suffice it to say, I think the guy is a world class douche bag, and am very glad not to be working for him.

    Living an honest life and expressing yourself is one thing, but the public does not need to know every detail of my life, who I’m screwing or want to screw, or who I socialize with. It’s none of their business. I don’t have anything to hide, but it’s just none of other people’s business. Most people censor themselves if they think everything they do is being noted or recorded.

    It all boils down to trust. Some people you can trust with carte blanche access to your life, thoughts, etc. Some people are assholes who will use information as currency or use it against you. Until you’ve been burned in a situation like that, you don’t understand how nasty people can be.

  • When it comes to sex, most people don’t have to be told to get naked twice, but maybe not everyone wants to be a nudist, all the time.

    You make this analogy between transparency and nakedness– even libertines might prefer a modicum of ‘modesty’ in presenting their online selves to the world.

    Not having a Facebook account is not an antisocial act.

  • It’s funny how people are all over the map about this issue. Some people think social networking sites are liabilities and don’t use them and others don’t really care what people see. Just FYI, I linked to this post in a post on my site because I was writing about social networking sites.

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