Friday, November 11, 2011

Privacy and Social Media

So I just read this and it got me thinking. Andy Boyle was recently in a Burger King in which he watched a fight between a married couple. He tweeted the play-by-play of the fight, including pictures of the couple, and even a video of the fight. And I don't know what to think of it.

On the one hand, there is an indignant part of my brain that wants to stamp my foot and exclaim, "THAT'S JUST NOT RIGHT." I want to get all huffy and say it's unfair to broadcast their problems across the internet without their consent. And yet, another part of me is completely indifferent to how THEY feel. After all, if they didn't want their fight to be public, they would have discussed their issues in the car or at home. There is no privacy in public anymore.

In the end, I'm so torn by what to feel that I can only feel saddened for the couple, if only for Andy Boyle's last two tweets. Because whether it was broadcast all over the world or kept absolutely private, their marriage is still ending, their love is lost, and these two people have to decide how they want their marriage to proceed.

But it's a perfect example of how our views of privacy are changing. What is "private", really, when we spend our time on social media sites, telling the world about ourselves? Updating our relationship status, something extremely private (especially when break-ups are concerned), or tweeting about our ups and lows? We pour ourselves into these pages, and because it's the internet, we almost feel anonymous. It's hard to fathom that every time we hit send, enter, or open our browser, we are utterly exposed to the world. Anyone with internet access can find what we've written, read it and know us, without ever meeting face-to-face.

And that can be scary. More so, it can be just as frightening when we realize that we have absolutely no CONTROL over what we post on the internet. The second you hit "send" it exists in the internet, even as some small piece of code, whether or not you choose to delete it. People can take what we've posted and spread it in seconds. Your picture could be half-way around the world, on eighteen different websites, and there is virtually no way to undo it. And that's not counting the content about us, that's not posted by us. Unflattering Facebook pictures, incriminating tweets, maybe even downright rude text messages. Our entire lives exist on the electronic devices we carry and the websites we visit.

We are the tech age. In cyberpunk terms, we've become one with the machines.

Which may not be a bad thing. However, if we continue along this trend, and the world grows even more reliant on the internet and our gadgets, our perception of privacy MUST change with it.

There's a great quote from a recent South Park episode that reflects what I mean here. The clip is here, but since it's highly likely that it will get taken down from youtube, I'll also transcribe a bit from it.

In this episode (called Bass to Mouth, btw) a site called Eavesdropper has appeared in South Park, and is posting up gossip about the kids at school.

KYLE: I'm not looking at that.

STAN: Come on, dude, it's pretty funny.

KYLE: It wouldn't be funny if that website posted something about you.

STAN: I wouldn't care.

CRAIG: (reading) Exclusive, Stan Marsh thinks Elise Thompson has a hot butt crack.

STAN: What?

CRAIG: (reading) In an email sent yesterday to Kenny McCormick, Stan Marsh wrote, "Dude, you should have been in PE today, Elise Thompson's butt crack was totally showing." He went on to call her butt crack "Nice" and that the whole experience was "pretty awesome."

STAN: Kenny! (Runs to Kenny's locker) Kenny, what the f**k?

KENNY: (muffled) What?

STAN: How did Eavesdropper get a hold of my email to you?

KENNY: (muffled) I don't know.

STAN: Do you just leave your emails open for everyone to read?

KENNY: (muffled) No.

STAN: That was a PRIVATE email from ME to YOU.

The scene goes on, but I think you get the picture. We have an assumed privacy that I think stems from the social convention of keeping secrets. If we confide in someone face-to-face, show them a picture, tell them about our day, it's expected that the person will not run around town telling everyone they know. Sometimes it's because it's private, sometimes it's just polite, and sometimes it's not our news to tell. And yet with social media sites, those social conventions of confidence are thrown out the window. Because with a click of a button, we tell EVERYONE, and it's become an easy way to stay completely connected and yet emotionally distant from everyone we know.

I wanted to bring up another aspect of how privacy and accessibility have clashed. Emails are considered a semi-private thing, right? Same with DM's, private messages, and the like. But what about queries?

I never thought of queries as something to be kept private. After all, on the AbsoluteWrite forums, people post their queries all the time to be critted. I still don't believe queries should be private for this simple reason: Your query is a business proposal. This is a matter of business, not personal life. Yes, your book is your baby and wah, wah, you're an artist. And you are. But the second you send your query, you're opening yourself to the world, and presenting yourself as finished, polished, and ready to be critiqued by a professional.

Do I have a problem with Sara Megibow's #10queriesin10tweets on Twitter? No. Because the moment those authors hit send, their work is no longer private. More so, Sara makes sure the queries cannot be identified, and does not ridicule, but uses the mistakes some writers have made to help others better their craft. If this is a violation of privacy, it's certainly a much kinder violation than Andy Boyle's public broadcast of a deteriorating marriage.

Our perceptions of privacy will change, inevitably. It probably won't be spoken of. Like most social codes, our ideas of privacy will shift and change without much conscious thought, until one day we look back and realize that what we're doing now would have seemed ridiculous 20 years ago. Perhaps in the future, in 20, 30 or even 50 years, we'll stop hiding behind this false anonymity the internet provides. Maybe our social contracts will shift so much that keeping secrets is nullified, and we speak the truth, no matter how blunt or mean or incriminating.

Maybe that won't be such a bad thing.



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