Last week, I wrote about Spokeo, a service that lets people who barely know you find out more about you than either of you might realize. But the problem isn’t the service itself — it’s our expectations of privacy, and our intentions for wanting privacy in the first place.
As Ian M. Rountree writes in his sharp-eyed post about the fallacy of privacy:
“Because anonymity is futile, we need to guard our manners.”
Services like Spokeo — or even just Facebook — dilute privacy to the point of meaninglessness. Anything you’ve ever done online is increasingly searchable and findable by the people who want to do so, which makes obsessing over the things we want to keep hidden from them futile indeed.
On the other hand, secrets are now easier than ever to find — and, therefore, worth ever less to those seeking to destroy you. (“Destroy you?” Someone has a high opinion of himself…) Which means secrets are cheap, and muckraking is cheap, and tearing apart someone’s reputation by divulging their own worst actions means less and less as those worst actions are, by nature, becoming more and more public.
What Happens When the Skeletons in Your Closet Don’t Matter?
We impeached a president over a blow job. We indicted a quarterback for murdering dogs. We’re currently fascinated by whether or not a golf hero will survive the exposure of his seemingly endless adultery — not professionally, because such transgressions obviously never impacted his game, but publicly, “in the eyes of the people,” which is (we tell ourselves) all that really matters.
Except it isn’t.
What other people think of you matters infinitely less than what you do. We’re taught this in gradeschool, and then we promptly forget it, because the rest of life is predicated on presumption, opinion and appearance. Facades are a goldmine, while accomplishments (or a lack thereof) are quickly dismissed and easily forgotten. And if that’s the case, why should failures be such taboo?
Everyone has secrets. Everyone does things they’d prefer to keep quiet, or which seem to be in direct opposition with their public persona. That’s life, and it’s the duality of human nature — we’re forever torn between who we wish we were and who we are right now. Yet, paradoxically, whenever someone’s private secrets have been divulged and their public persona has been tarnished as a result, we become fascinated with the spectacle — despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that the exact same thing (minus the fame) could happen to us.
People who never cared about golf a month ago are now riveted by the saga of Tiger Woods and his seemingly endless harem, and the only question asked more than “How did he get away with being such a duplicitous adulterer for so long and still play golf better than anyone else on the planet?” is “How will he handle this?” Because as much as the public loves to see a good implosion, it’s also watching for instructions on how to handle this same kind of PR nightmare, should such an expose ever happen to them — or us — or you.
Because “public relations” isn’t actually about relating to the public; it’s about convincing the public that your own version of a story is the most relevant. Nobody cares what actually happened; we only care about what the stories we tell each other mean, and who’s believing them.
Which is ironic, because who we are is always more interesting than who we pretend to be.