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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

  • Thank you for writing this Jeff.

    I think you’ve perfectly summarized the bridge between new and old generations caused by the internet. I’ve noticed an increasing trend for friends to be more apprehensive of their online social interactions. This apprehensiveness is invariably caused by established organizations that refuse to recognize or understand the lives of young people (jobs not hiring people, or even firing people based on pictures of the usual youth exploits shared on social networks). Hopefully, as the new generation replaces the old, we’ll also replace these backwards attitudes to individual expression.

    So strange that today’s “counter-culture” should take place in such a non-physical manner.

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  • Jeff! Right on! It’s amazing how easliy accessible it is to find people. I enjoy getting messages from friends I haven’t talked to in years on myspace and facebook, but there becomes a need for some privacy. The idea that people can google you and are looking at all your information is kind of scary. I know my friends intentions are good, but when other creepies come into the picture, I hope for more security. I want my friends to know what I’m up to, but I don’t want everyone on the planet in my business. There are other issues that could present themselves.

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  • BFF

    Colour me sceptical. We fall out of touch with people in the same city all the time. It’s about changing interests and needs, and so much more than just knowing how to reach someone.

    Yes, of course, the web makes it easier to find people, and then text or e-mail, “We should do lunch.”

    We should but will we?

    Full disclosure: I absolutely do not get the whole Facebook thing.

  • John vR

    I don’t agree with this and I think making our lives an open book on the Web actually will only lead to misunderstanding. Our lives are more complicated than the few tidbits we leave on the Web trail. Yet, people will judge us by that trail and draw conclusions that might be completely out of whack with reality.

    Also, while you’re right that the Web allows one to search for old pals, it also leads to information about some of those old pals that’s just clutter. I’m on Facebook and I see updates on ‘Friends’ that I could do well without. It’s one reason I’m considering cancelling my Facebook account.

  • Steve

    Agreed on all counts.

    Just one comment: I find the magnitude and pervasiveness of the web such that, with only one or two remaining exceptions, I can pretty much find anyone.

    And many of these people I find left no intentional footprint, fiingerprint, or anyprint. Over the last few years I have made a sort of sport/hobby out of finding pretty much anyone and everyone with whom I have had any significant relationship since I was born in 1951. People leave “secondary” and “tertiary” webprints that they don’t know about and are just there for the picking.

    Some mornings i wake up and remember some kid in the third grade or some horrible teacher and usually I can find them. In fact, out of a slew of wonderful teachers, I had an abusive and cruel 8th grade sadist who took his short stature and inferiority complex out on kids. Of course I was able to find him. Now the question is whether I send an old man a letter and tell him what a thrill it is to finally find my old teacher and tell him what an unrepentant prick he was.

    I have acctually thought about doing a book on what I call, for lack of a better term, personal achaeology or excavating your past.

    So many discoveries and surprizes. People who awed and intimidated you ended up yutzes. An arrogant and despicable guy who got into medical school and became a physician ended up a convicted sex offender. Quiet, decent nerds became combat fighter pilots. And old girlfriends you thought would be thrilled to hear from you took the opportunity to remind you yet again — thirty years later — why they dumped you.

    For the most part, this new publicness has been nothing short of thrilling. And often incredibly revealing of life’s real and unscripted trajectories.

  • re: “First, I think it means that they will maintain friendships and other relationships longer in life.”


    I would think again… We all have limited time. I doubt those who claim to have more than a handful of (actual) friends. Makes me think they are counting acquaintances as friends — they don’t know the difference.

    This is the trap (well… on of them…) Facebook and other “social networks” seem to exploit: “come over here! you’ll keep more friendships than you ever imagined! — just send an itty-bitty note to everybody you know every now and then”… right:)… that’s just going to cause you to lose your actual friends while chasing some meaningless number…

    Just imagine *all* those people from your past would have responded and would have been ready to spend the amount of time needed for an actual friendship for indefinite time –> COULD you have done it? (I’m not asking *would* you have done it — I’m assuming you would have *liked* to do it… you just couldn’t have possibly fit all of them in for the long run…)


  • Jeff, I think the devil is in the detail and the greater concern I have about young people is how these tools develop their abilities to assess risks. Texting and mobiles have already led to a bypassing of relationships between children and the parents of their friends, according to some research. Phone calls and meetings are made independently of parents and so the ecology of social interaction can be said to be changing quite significantly in a short space of time without our being able to judge whether this is consistent with our evolutionary needs. Two of the biggest problems we face as individuals in these more complex times are the confirmation bias and the fundamental attribution error. I agree with you that technology offers smart people, communities and organizations the tools to overcome those limitations, but equally for those who are less wise, it compounds the dangers they already face. As I blog, I’ve made a conscious choice to experiment in that area and experience for myself some of those potential risk factors. But it is not for everyone. Where journalism and academia can contribute is in quickly helping us develop the heuristics we need to categorise the useful from useless information, the good nodes from the bad. My own fear for older style journalism is that it is actually creating some of the bad information, but that is another matter.

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  • Jeff – interesting post, you confront so much of what scares people about how the younger generation uses the web. I often hear about how kids need to be educated about behavior online. In the same regard, adults need to be educated as to the benefits of confronting their fear.

    So many people feel that they must construct and portray a image of who they are, that personal things can only be used against them. While I do hope that kids learn to behave responsibly and safely online, I hope that adults learn to open up more, for all the reasons you state.
    Have a nice evening.

  • Colin Kerr

    Why so much conflict on the topic of “new” versus “old” journalism?

    There is room for professional journalists and bloggers to share space online but the either/or argument doesn’t seem to make much sense.

    Good journalism and good writing online should be the gold standard.

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  • Jim

    Great article. I just want to point out that has a collection of web sites where you can search for lost friends, lost classmates ect.

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