Friends forever: The advantages of publicness

I say it’s a good thing that our lives are becoming more public and permanent on the internet. It will keep us closer as people. It might make us more civil and more forgiving as a result.

While we tend to focus on the dangers of losing privacy, for a Guardian column I’m working on, I’d like to examine the benefits of living in public, of publicness.

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Start with the idea that young people today need never lose track of their friends, as I have with most of mine. That’s not only because they will leave bits of themselves online that will be be searchable and findable via Google, but also because they will remain linked in ever-expanding social networks, like Facebook, that connect them to their friends’ friends back through their own histories online.

Like everyone today — come on, admit it — I have Googled old friends and girlfriends. But at my age, that’s frustrating, since so few of my contemporaries have left visible Google shadows. I’ve found nothing for my high-school and college friends. So in January, 2003, I blogged a post listing a few names, just in case they Googled themselves with ego searches and found my “Google call” to them. Then, some months ago, I got email out of nowhere from my high-school girlfriend, Marki, extolling the wonders of Google. So now, via email, we’ve been catching up by tiny increments for more years than we’ll admit. I asked Marki whether she’d found my Google call or my Google shadow. It was the latter; she hadn’t heard of ego searches and my shadow is, well, bigger than me by now: My life is an open blog. Regardless, I’m delighted to reconnect with her. With each of us on opposite coasts, far away from our Midwestern alma mater and both disinclined to return for reunions, we never would have been able to reconnect without Google. Even so, the odds of making the link were small; it took one of us having a Google life and the other seeking it. I know we’re better off for it.

But for today’s young people, this won’t be so hard. They are all Googleable. They will all have threads connecting them on Facebook and whatever follows. (Alloy says that 96 percent of teens and tweens use social networks; they are now universal.)

So what does that mean to them? First, I think it means that they will maintain friendships and other relationships longer in life. I didn’t. I moved to four schools in three states in both elementary and high school (no, my father got out of the military so we wouldn’t move but then went into sales and we moved). I think that nomadism may have actually helped me. Friends will think this is a punchline but in truth, I was shy and being the new kid eight times forced me to be able to talk to people. But as we moved, I lost touch with almost every friend I had and that is a loss. If I had what young people have today, I could have stayed in touch with many of them or at least been able to track them through life.

I think this will lead to not just longer but better, richer friendships and I hope that is good for the character and good for the society. You’ll know that you can’t just escape people when you move on; you are tied to your past. And you’ll be able to stay in touch and won’t have those awkward moments of trying to catch up on 30 years over a single cocktail or email.

But what about living our lives in public? Yes, it’s possible that they could do one stupid thing in life and it goes onto Google — Google is everybody’s permanent record — and they are humiliated forever. Yes, it’s possible. Google CEO Eric Schmidt jokingly suggests we should be able to change our names and start fresh at age 21.

But I think this will be a matter of mutually assured humiliation: We will all have our moments of youthful indiscretion and we will have to forgive others’ if we want them to ignore ours. I say that could even make us more tolerant. OK, so you inhaled. So did I. Had awful taste in music once? Me, too. Wrote blog posts we’ve regretted? Haven’t we all? Yes, even our politicians’ youthful foibles will be open to the world to see and isn’t it better that we see their fallibility and humanity before they get into office? Isn’t it healthier if they and we don’t pretend they’re anything more than just people and politicians? And isn’t it better for democracy if they are forced to be more transparent?

There are other benefits to living life in public. It pushes us into social acts, into connecting with other people, even in subtle ways. When Flickr began, cofounder Caterina Fake has said, they made the fateful and fortunate decision to “default to public,” to go against the presumption and precedent of all the earlier photo services that we would want our pictures to be private. By making them public and by tagging them, we could find others’ photos and other people with shared interests; we could even find friends. made the same decision about defaulting to public and so our collective bookmarks and tags there yielded greater value together than they did apart; it enabled us to find more content like this and for content to be discovered by more people; it enabled us to — as David Weinberger has explained in his brilliant book, Everything is Miscellaneous — organize information. Publicness allows us to join up to do more together than we could alone.

You see, putting a photo on Flickr or a bookmark on or a tag on this post so it (and I) can be found in Technorati — and certainly blogging — all become social acts. And encouraging social acts would seem to be a social good.

As I’ve pointed out here before, young people have a different view of privacy and publicness because they realize you can’t make connections with people unless you reveal something of ourself: You won’t find fellow skiers unless you tell the world that you, too ski. I couldn’t find advice and support from people about my heart condition without revealing that I had one. Privacy advocates, as they are so often called, would be appalled that I revealed the most private of my personal information: my health data. But public people will tell you that living in public brings its benefits.

As I’ve also written recently, I think that Facebook has made important refinements on the idea of publicness on the internet by requiring real identity — not the anonymity and pseudonymity that dominate so much of the internet; by enabling us to control that identity and how public it is; and by enabling us to control our communities. We don’t live entirely in public; we decide how public want to be; we control our friendships. As I was researching this post — yes, I do research them, occasionally — I looked up my college girlfriend, who is an academic (a real one, unlike me) and found a review of one of her articles that eloquently summarized this idea of identity and the “crucial liberties” to “represent one’s identity publicly” and to “have a protected private sphere.” That is just what I wanted to explore here. Google kismet. She also posited the liberty to “equal opportunity to influence future generations.” That is about the purpose of living in public: the public as the political. You can’t change the world unless you’re willing to reveal how you think that should be done.

The issue isn’t so much privacy but, as Doc Searls has been writing, it is control of our identities and our data. Publicness is good so long as we decide how public we want to be.

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So look at the benefits of publicness: We can maintain richer friendships longer. We may be more careful to act civilly in public. We may become more forgiving of others’ lapses of civility and sense in the hopes that they will forgive ours: the golden rule of the social life online, I hope. We can make connections with people with shared interests and needs. We act more socially. We find we can do more together than apart. We invest in and protect our identities and communities. We organize and act collaboratively to improve this world. Yes, there are risks to publicness and to losing privacy. But the benefits of life in the public are great. That is what my private peers do not realize but what the young public understands in their souls.