Posts about publicness

The perils of publicness

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the benefits of publicness and transparency. This week also reminded me of the perils.

This was hardly the first time I’ve suffered a personal attack, nor will it be the last. Although I will say that it made for a particularly awful day – bad taste in the mouth, unsettled feeling at the pit of the stomach, vulnerability, disappointment – I’m certainly in no position to seek sympathy. I’m a blogger who has done my share of snarking. I spent years as a critic and got poison-pen responses from fans and actors. I know I’m being blunt with my opinions about journalism because I think that’s both necessary and working, but I also know it rubs some people wrong. So be it.

I was gratified at the support of friends. But I was more bothered than anything that I got email from my parents wondering who this Ron Rosenbaum was (and why was he attacking their son). Even bloggers have mothers.

This isn’t about my publicness. It’s about the next person who hasn’t experienced this before and comes online to create or share and gets stabbed. What happens to her willingness to open up in public? If she reverts to her shell, what do we lose? What impact does this have on the quality of the conversation? What impact does that have on the reputation and value of the medium?

My stock answers to these questions – coming always from my optimistic defense of online conversation – have been: Don’t pay attention to the bad stuff, pay attention to the good stuff. And: We all can tell who the assholes are. And: Don’t judge the medium by its worst. And that’s all fine and true until you are reminded what it feels like to get that dull blade from behind.

I happened to see PR man Richard Edelman yesterday and so I asked for his high-priced advice on what to do in these circumstances, which he gave. No surprise, he advised not to stoop to the level of the sniper, which is exactly what I did, responding in kind, because I felt like it. Edelman said to respond with the facts and to return to the principles, which, of course, is just what I should have done (and will do with another post later). “You must stay in character,” he said. “You must not rise to the bait. You have more to lose.” Actually, I didn’t need to go to a PR expert for that. It’s what my father always advised.

Edelman acknowledged differences in media and time. On Fox and MSNBC, one does respond in kind; the one who’s loudest wins. In years past, PR people might have advised clients to ignore and hide. But that doesn’t suit the blogosphere, he said.

There’s an old social norm at work here that is, I think, an extension of old media, which says: You put yourself out there, so you put yourself at risk for getting attacked. This implies it is almost your fault for getting attacked. This is a basis of the public-figure defense in libel, the presumed right to go after people in the public eye. Once you become public, you give up the cloak and protection of privacy.

But now we are all public. Does that norm still hold online, when 180 million people have started blogs and countless more put videos on YouTube and photos on Flickr? Are they all, should they all be targets for the snipers and snarkers? Well, they all could be. But what’s our attitude about that? Is there a new norm emerging?

Online has developed one system to deal with attacks, and it came into play this week: Someone will remind the participants not to feed the trolls. Feeding the trolls not only encourages them but degrades the conversation and, again, devalues the medium. The trolls and their followers hurt the internet. So don’t feed them. Another system, also in play this week, kicks in when someone tries to get the discussion back on track to talk about the issues and ideas that are being ignored. One norm that has developed is that it’s proper etiquette to link to responses to an attack (note that Rosenbaum has not granted even that simple courtesy). Finally, there is humor.

Other systems don’t work. Sites are forever looking at automated means of getting rid of the dross. Where is the troll algorithm? And I hope we don’t revert to suing for libel, for that will put a chill on conversation and, as Susan Crawford has pointed out, libel law becomes irrelevant as we all have the means of response (which I took).

I wonder whether more new systems will emerge. I’ve argued that violating one’s own privacy with beer-party pictures will become less important thanks to the doctrine of mutually assured humiliation. That will become more and more the case under Zuckerberg’s Law, which decrees that “…next year, people will share twice as much information as they share this year, and next year, they will be sharing twice as much as they did the year before.” We’ll all be vulnerable. In the company of nudists, no one’s naked.

The conversation is well worth the trouble. I am the obnoxious optimist. I do trust the wisdom of the crowd, the market, the public and I believe that we will all benefit the more that we are all public and the more our institutions are all transparent. But I fear losing the conversation and wisdom and contributions to it from people who get the shiv in the back once too often (which for some will be once). It’s one matter to read stupid attacks and gather around them as entertainment. It’s another to be on the wrong end of them and I need to be reminded of that as I was this week.

Maybe that’s what happens: We all get attacked once and become wiser for it. Or we all get attacked and become nastier for it; that’s the fear. There were always be trolls, fools, idiots, and assholes; there are in life and so they will be here on the internet. That doesn’t ruin the internet any more than it ruins New York. The question is whether and how we can see and protect the value of the internet. Optimist that I am, I believe we will.

: LATER: By the way, I see I’m being baited by another person who only attacks people and only to get attention and links. I’m not even watching what he says; I stopped watching him two years ago. Just a note: This is why I love Twitter. I blocked him. And now my world is free of this troll. It feels good. And, no, I’m not going to give him the satisfaction of a link, either.

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. Del.icio.us 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 Del.icio.us 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.

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.