The public life

The irony is so thick you could spread it on a bagel: In Today’s Times, Tom Friedman writes about living our lives in public thanks to the bloggers, vloggers, and podcasters who can watch our any, if not every, move and tell the world about it. Of course, the column itself is not in the public. It’s behind the wall. Anyway, Friedman tells a story he told at the Personal Democracy Forum (columnists, like bloggers, are good recyclers):

Three years ago, I was catching a plane at Boston’s Logan airport and went to buy some magazines for the flight. As I approached the cash register, a woman coming from another direction got there just behind me — I thought. But when I put my money down to pay, the woman said in a very loud voice: “Excuse me! I was here first!” And then she fixed me with a piercing stare that said: “I know who you are.” I said I was very sorry, even though I was clearly there first.

If that happened today, I would have had a very different reaction. I would have said: “Miss, I’m so sorry. I am entirely in the wrong. Please, go ahead. And can I buy your magazines for you? May I buy your lunch? Can I shine your shoes?”

Why? Because I’d be thinking there is some chance this woman has a blog or a camera in her cellphone and could, if she so chose, tell the whole world about our encounter — entirely from her perspective — and my utterly rude, boorish, arrogant, thinks-he-can-butt-in-line behavior. Yikes! . . .

For young people, writes [Dov] Seidman, this means understanding that your reputation in life is going to get set in stone so much earlier. More and more of what you say or do or write will end up as a digital fingerprint that never gets erased. Our generation got to screw up and none of those screw-ups appeared on our first job résumés, which we got to write. For this generation, much of what they say, do or write will be preserved online forever. Before employers even read their résumés, they’ll Google them.

“The persistence of memory in electronic form makes second chances harder to come by,” writes Seidman. “In the information age, life has no chapters or closets; you can leave nothing behind, and you have nowhere to hide your skeletons. Your past is your present.” So the only way to get ahead in life will be by getting your “hows” right.

I’m going at this from a different perspective in a post I’ll be putting up soon about the positive aspects of living life in public.

  • http://www.newyorker.com/ A.J. Liebling

    Enough with the wall already. I never hear bloggers refer to the “paywall” that is cable television. A year’s subscription to TimesSelect costs about the same as the average month for cable. Anybody who wants to read the full Times online is already paying for it. Those who read and have grown tired of Friedman (letting him slip beyond the more insidious “attention wall”) will come back to this one, if only for the target practice. And if people aren’t subcribers at all, blogs like yours supply the handy fair use of excerpting 40% of the article.

    As for the positive aspects of living life in public, it’s self-evident. Some of us knew you as one of the force behind NJ.com’s community sites during the web 1.0 era; as the creator of EW and other successes, you became President of Advance.net. This afforded you many hours of the day to correspond with the big shots of the field, and outflank memo-passer Romanesko as a more passionate voice of onlne media. We watched you start you blog and your triumphs over your occasion foes, Dell and the NY Times. And, then the Times went and hired you as a consultant, and then you were crowned as a “hackademic” as you call it, and the Sulzberger foundation provided some scholarships to your program, and you continue onward.

    Of course, not everything was public and transparent with BuzzMachine and Advance.Net. A reader of the dear old New Yorker asked whether you would push for the magazine to bring the forums into the 21st century; that would do much for the transparency of the magazine. A run-of-the-mill comments forum would be too pedestrian, but if the cartoon caption contest could be imagine, so could other interactive forms.

    (for those who do not know: I last wrote for the magazine forty-four years ago, before my death. I occasionally pick an earthly media critic to channel my thoughts to Jeff Jarvis’s weblog).

    Cheers to Friedman and various consultants for carrying forward the banner of accountability, even it must take the form of heat-wave addled newspaper columns. For Mr. Friedman gave insult to his alma mater’s namesake by cheering the end of personal privacy.

    What is missing from the BuzzMachine experience, and from in general from the grand oracles of the whole citizen media experience, is a look sometime at the other effects. Not everyone is so fortunate to have a fantastic job and hundreds of admirers at their feet; BuzzMachine. Thanks to the Internet and every last person being the press, the poor souls minding their own business may be virtually pulled into a public forum, have their identity and phone numbers and alleged relations hung out for all to see, and then be the subject of a distorted picture painted by various search engines.

    No, this story is not to be told. You like to quote Cardozo Las Professor Susan Crawford, “the internet enables people to respond to libel in a way that was not possible before, when access to the press or the tower was essential to right a wrong.” This is a deceptive myth for anyone who is the subject of online harassment or libel; but a very useful myth for any large-audienced publisher who needs an excuse out of apologizing.

  • http://www.newyorker.com/ A.J. Liebling

    Above: I did not misspell “Lass” when referring to Crawford I misspelled “Law.” Forgive my vessel, his eyes were weary at the end of that piece.

  • http://www.pluto-online.com/editorsblog Ed Walker

    That’s a really interesting post, I know in the UK that employers are searching Facebook and MySpace when they get CVs in to ‘get a true flavour of what that person is like’.

  • http://www.thefutureofnews.com Steve Boriss

    Wow, talk about things being “preserved online forever”! Re: comments 1 and 2, I had no idea the ghost of A. J. Liebling of the New Yorker was housed on a server and he could come back from the dead to post comments on the BuzzMachine. Now THAT’s a killer app!

  • Dave Jones

    When I heard Tom Friedman tell this story at PDF, I rolled my eyes. At the conference, he was a bit less…politic about it, and it seemed more of a have-pity-on-us-poor-celebrities kind of thing than an uh-oh-all-our-lives-are-public kind of thing, as it does in his op-ed. I’ll respond to the PDF version.

    All things being equal, having more information is better for the public interest than having less – regardless of what or who that information is about (except in a select few cases, mostly pertaining to national security).

    My problem with Friedman’s argument at PDF was that he extended it from celebrities to politicians. I took it to imply we should not be able to see politicians at they truly are, but only as they would like themselves portrayed. This is poppycock. So-called “macaca moments” are not simply gotcha politics, they are ways for us voters to look behind the curtain, to a bias buried deep within the psyche of a man who might otherwise have been our president, or to the poorly hidden egomania of a man whose ideas occupy major real estate in the country’s leading opinion space.

    Three things will happen in this new scenario, where we can see our celebrities in their worst moments as well as their best:

    1) The world will gradually learn to distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources. If this woman reports her account of a boorish Friedman online and it is subsequently echoed by others, with few dissenters, then we can safely judge Friedman a line-jumper. And we can interpret his opinions in light of this previously inaccessible truth. If her accusation does not appear part of a pattern, Friedman can continue as Everyone’s Favorite Pundit(TM). So, Friedman has nothing to fear from a single instance – he only has to worry if this is a recurring phenomenon.

    2) Some celebrities will moderate their public behavior, Friedman style, knowing that they will increasingly be held accountable for it. Others (more of them, I suspect) will not, as they can only play their public roles for so many hours of the day. As the light shines on their blemishes, it will gradually become clear to the public that our celebrities are just as human as the rest of us. And that they are deserving of attention only on the basis of the their contribution to the public sphere, not based on their airport behavior. Or clothing. Or separations.

    3) There will be some flaws the public will not forgive, just as they would not forgive them in an acquaintance. But people who possess such flaws will not be able to make it as far into the public eye before their dirty secrets are revealed. The next generation of celebrities will actually have fewer of the flaws which turn into scandals today, as they’ll be unable to hide them till they boil over. So there will be less variance between celebrities’ and politicians’ public and actual personas.

    These are long, drawn-out changes I’m talking about, though; Friedman is just a stand-in for the celebrity of the future.

  • http://web2watch.blogspot.com Fiona Blamey

    Having recently deleted my last.fm and Facebook accounts because I was uncomfortable with the amount of information about myself I was making public, I’ll be very interested to read your further thoughts on this subject.

    I can’t help but think that Facebook is like a big drunken game of strip poker that seems like fun at the time, but which immediately leads to regrets about revealing too much too quickly to people you hardly know.

    I’m sure you will counter with some excellent reasons for taking those risks.

  • http://www.millsworks.net/blog Robbo

    There’s a whole generational aspect to all this which interests me greatly.

    I’m pushing 50 and like to think of myself as still reasonably “aware” of what the hell is going on around me and I hate speaking like this because it makes me sound like a doddering old fool … but here goes:

    The younger generations are growing up into this more “public” experience of themselves in ways (somewhat) similar to when my generation (and older) were growing up with the (then) new medium of television. It changed us as surely as the current models, and technological & social innovations are changing the younger members of our society.

    We can only guess at what individuals, and society itself, will become within this new paradigm of “no secrets”.

    It may indeed be a “village” experience where you find yourself identified, categorized or pigeonholed early in life. That was the prior experience that drove me (and countless others) to the anonymity of the city where we could reinvent ourselves and discover who we really were instead of being socially bound into a pre-set image held by others.

    I suspect though that this era of the public persona will be quite different. The small mindedness of a village does not necessarily adhere to the global sense of exposure. We can still be public, open, exposed with no secrets, and continue to reinvent ourselves.

    How?

    I don’t know, I’m too old to go there myself; but it’ll be fun to watch.

    Looking forward to more on this, Jeff. Thanks.

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  • http://www.schmult.com Nick Schmidt

    I’m going to make this short as sweet, unlike the 1st post (although informative)

    You welcome Tom Friedman. Don’t mess with us bloggers and vloggers or we will post things about you on the internet.. LOL.. JK.

  • http://robertdfeinman.com/society robertdfeinman

    As admissions of youthful drug use have become more common among politicians the repercussions have decreased.

    We should also expect that when lots of dirty laundry is in public view it will also start to be given less weight.

    Convicted felons get new jobs when they get out of jail (especially if they worked on Wall Street before) so it seems that the scarlet letter is not a lifetime sentence anymore.

  • http://www.laurencehaughton.com laurence haughton

    “The more strictly we are watched, the better we behave.”

  • http://www.rosenblumtv.com Rosenblum

    For years Tom Friedman has been ‘watching’ other people and writing about them for public consumption with abandon. He well might have thought then that he was in a priviledged position – as he was, the ‘technology’ of newspaper printing and distribution being a bit too expensive for the rest of us. Now, suddenly, his advantage is gone, He is on a level playing field, with anyone capable of doing what he has been doing for most of his life. It makes him uncomfortable? How ironic. Too bad!

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  • http://www.burningice.wordpress.com Joe O

    Robbo, as a member of the generation Facemybookspace, I’d like to point out that there was a massive outcry when Facebook abruptly introduced its newsfeed (a peeping Tom’s wet dream). Suddenly no moves were made in the shadows and all communications were out in the open. People threatened to leave, demons rose from hell and babies cried. It was awful.

    But then people began tailoring their moves to look shnazzy and draw attention. You had status updates that were cries for help or joy (I had one friend announce her engagement to everyone via status update). And ultimately, Facebook became what myspace fell painfully short of – a tool of mass communication/distraction that’s easy to navigate.

    As for the need for anonymity and a fresh start, the sense of community is back with a vengence now. There is no more “go it alone” attitude among my peers. The few that do walk that path stumble and fall into a ditch. Not being a member of Facebook or a regular user is a damn good way to miss out on a lot of stuff – and you only have yourself to blame.

    Dinners amongst friends have become group parties, with pictures tagged and commented on within a week (I’m sadly pushing 749 pictures myself. How’s that for putting myself out there?)

    As for Tom Friedman, he’s about 5 years late on spotting a trend – as usual.

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  • BW

    It seems to be the same story every week – some “journalist” who previously considered themselves better suited to write about people than “regular” people is now nervous because “regular” people can write too. It just comes out in a different form each week. As Artie Lange would say,
    WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAa.

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  • http://www.mattwardman.com/blog/ Matt

    Sorry Jeff – owe you an apology.

    I posted an article to more than one blog, and they all pinged you.

    Will correct all the configs but one.

  • http://www.millsworks.net/blog Robbo

    I’m still trying to wrap my head around Facebook without having it completely consume every waking hour of my life. Very addictive. This new paradigm of community and pubic exposure (all puns intended) is fascinating. And the imagination does tend to wander when considering the future of potential Supreme Court Justices that have their young pre-law booty splashed across the net. Of course by then the old age homes will be filled with tattooed and pierced octegenarians. The future will be cool … if we ever get there.

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