Fuck Privacy. What About the Rest of Your Life?

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.

  • http://ianmrountree.com Ian M Rountree

    It does matter what people think of you – if you’re a public face for a living. This is part of the problem with the Tiger conundrum; he is NOT a public face, for a living, but because his success led to so many spokesman positions, we think he was.

    I’m still amused by the entire Clinton thing. If Chretien, the PM in Canada at the time, had the same thing happen half of Canada would have said “Really? Way to go, Jean!” and his popularity would have SKYROCKETED.

    There’s something about having your entire culture driven by granted rights that acts like a permanent Streisand Effect on your privacy. As soon as you stand up about a “transgression” ten more people join in the opposite side, just because they can.

    And that’s the root of the privacy issue right now. The harder you fight, in public,to keep yours, the less chance you have of evading those who wish to pull the curtain aside intentionally.

    Gotta love the enablers paradox, don’t you?

  • http://thelostjacket.com Stuart Foster

    The only issue I see with this (and all tech) is the inevitable investigation of myself by a potential date. I literally spell every single detail about myself, who I am, what I am doing and where I am. It puts me at a tactical disadvantage from a first date perspective to say the least.

    That’s the only thing about lack of privacy that pisses me off. Everything else I’m cool with.

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  • http://www.tidysongs.com Kelly McPhee

    This makes me think of the PostSecret project. PostSecret is an ongoing community art project where people
    mail in their secrets anonymously on one side of a postcard. People like to tell other people what’s going on in their life, even things that are private. I think PostSecret is interesting because people tell things and don’t put their name on it, just because it makes them feel better. I think it’s interesting because most people neglect privacy for the chance to be heard, PostSecret, accomplishes both without negativity. Sometimes when people aren’t forced to put their name on something, things can get negative, PostSecret is an anonymous way to make your feeling heard.

  • http://striketheroot.wordpress.com Eric Williams

    I’m not really interested in privacy for the sake of hiding secrets. As a father I’m concerned about stalkers and predators. That’s why I manually approve anyone who wants to see pics of my kids on Flickr.

  • http://www.drawclose.com jessica

    The information about us, or “facts”? Not who we are.

    That metadata is, however, how people who are into manipulation of others through access to personal information thrive in an increasingly literal world.

    If you believe in the lingual presentation of self, well, language is used to make lies and tell the truth. The Internets strips language of all the nuances that indicate honesty or its lack. Good luck with that stance.

    Excellent column, btw.

  • DaraBell

    I think that actually happened in Italy with Italian public loving virity of there El Duce. Scandal can even drive public opinion the scandlemongering created an untouchable character in power. Not sure the entire context of this disscussion.

  • DaraBell

    Infact I think Machellevi often said in Italian city leaders that appearances where taken as reality with regard to PR. Not sure where my Italian fascination has come from tonight.

  • http://hallicious.com Chris Hall

    I really like the exploration of universal truth in your last paragraph.

    What really happens ever?

    Will any of us ever really be able to know, for sure? I vote no. :)

  • http://www.justinkownacki.com Justin

    And if we’ll never really know for sure… what does any of it matter?

    Not to get all nihilistic. But at least it helps put our obsession over Tiger’s harem in perspective.

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