Reading this excellent defense of so-called “oversharing” by Jeff Jarvis prompted me once again to think not only about the value of openness, but of the dangers I see in over-valuing privacy and discretion. In a nutshell, by adamantly asserting your right or your duty to keep certain information about yourself private, you may be playing into the hands of powerful forces that are seeking to control and circumscribe your behavior.
Before you freak out (I’ve found most people do; I’ve only got one friend who agrees with me so far), at least read my caveat: I don’t think openness should be *forced* or snuck onto anyone as Facebook is wont to do, as the brilliant danah boyd has articulated so well here. Yes, control of your personal information is important, and there ARE risks to self-disclosure that may disproportionally affect the less-powerful in our society.
But what worries me is how often people seem to take privacy and discretion as unquestioned social goods and surround them in a rhetoric of fear. This is particularly heightened by these fast-changing times of ours, and the rise of social networks and powerful new corporations like Facebook quite understandably make us uneasy. But those who “overshare” are often belittled; in this True/Slant piece in which he smacks Jarvis for talking about his prostate cancer online, Dery calls self-disclosure “a disease,” a self-obsession lacking in “decency” that is somehow dangerously redefining the “proper” line between the public and private self. Or, “oversharers” are cautioned with dire warnings about the multitude of bad things that will happen to them at the evil hands of big government, big corporations, and the bossman, including but not limited to identity theft and being summarily sacked. While to an extent these concerns are clearly legit (yep, kids, you can get fired for that Tweet), lost in all the sound and fury here is a close examination of how power often really operates.
Let me get all academic nerd here for a second and throw down the hegemony card. Hegemony, as defined simply by Wikipedia, is “the political, economic, ideological or cultural power exerted by a dominant group over other groups…emphasizing how control is achieved through consensus not force.” In other words, power isn’t all about the making you do something, it’s about the subtle ways in which we unknowingly participate in our own domination.
Proscribing certain things to the private sphere is one of the key ways in which hegemony operates. It may feel noble and satisfying to assert one’s autonomy and our sovereign right to keep our personal life private, especially in individualistic Western culture, and to sneer at others for what you deem incessant babbling (though frankly nobody is telling you you have to listen to them). But in reality what you may be doing is playing right into the hands of The Man.
By agreeing that certain things should be kept private, you may in some ways be acquiescing to the idea that they are legitimate grounds for public judgment if they are be disclosed. For example, keeping sex and sexuality in the private sphere is long how religion and culture have sought to control it. Making this aspect of life private is one way in which we perpetuate the idea that it is “bad” and correctly subject to sanction or control if openly expressed. For example, if I were to publish a photo of myself flashing my boobs on Facebook (relax, people, this is just an example, and no, this has not and will not happen), this would no doubt be deemed inappropriate, not insignificantly by my colleagues and boss. But when you stop and critically examine it, what does flashing my boobs have to do with my fitness for my job (presuming I’m not doing this in in front of the classroom or something obviously work-related), anyway? Why is it legit for me to be judged professionally by how I express my sexuality or the parts of my body that I am willing to show?
Okay, I picked a somewhat extreme example for effect, but hell, Devy doesn’t even want Jarvis to talk about his penis in the context of prostate cancer, for crying out loud.
By making some things private, we also make them things that individuals are supposed to buck up and bear on their own, rather than finding collective solutions to problems. Family life is largely private, and one logical outcome of this is that our society only slowly takes progressive steps to enact policies that would help, say, two working parents struggling with child care. Consigning sex to the private sphere may help account for unprotected sex by the uniformed. Depression is deemed private because there is still social stigma surrounding diseases of the mind, and as a result, people don’t get the kind of social support and shared knowledge that might cause them to seek treatment. Etc. Etc.
Rest assured that I regularly warn my students to be careful what they share in public because my ranting aside, yes, in the real world it can have an affect on their job prospects and social status, and those on the bottom of the totem pole are the least able to fight back against those who would judge them. And certainty there are no shortage of cruel people out there ready to rip others apart for perceived transgressions. But I also tell them that there is tremendous value to be had in openness – that many problems are best solved with the proverbial little help from your friends, a circle ever-expanding in the world of the Web and social media – and that while they should use caution, they shouldn’t be too paranoid, either. And while I myself do exercise some discretion, I’m a proud oversharer and I regularly take some risks by being pretty open and honest about my personal life and opinions despite being in the tenure hunt.
While I support each individual’s control over his or her own information, I’d just like us to be a little bit more critical in how we think and talk about and privacy so these issues don’t go unexamined.