Is Privacy Always Good? A Defense of the Overshare

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.



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7 responses to “Is Privacy Always Good? A Defense of the Overshare

  1. Undersharing. Oversharing. Public. Private. The real world. The online world. Anonymous.

    For the previous 10 days the number of mentions surrounding this topic has overwhelmed me. Arguments from both sides, public vs. private, receive the most attention, but your post has gotten all of my attention.

    The Internet is a highly interactive world of relationships, some fully public while others anonymous, but it is no different than reality.

    What it lacks are the tools to be able to explore your true and often contradictory self. Where you can be, express and connect different aspects of your personality with different individuals and groups of your own choosing.

    We all want to access, explore and learn from a full range of possible relationships…professional, social, sports, cultural, etc. But it is impossible and impractical to relate to everyone. Nor would we want to. We want to choose what parts of our “inner-self” we share and with whom we share it.

    These tools let people know something about whom they are connecting with. Those people can then mutually decide, as in their real lives, what parts of their passions, thoughts and personalities they want to share and relate with…anonymously or otherwise, one-on-one or as part of a like-minded group.

    Oversimplified: How I define and portray myself to co-workers is very different than how I want to or need to portray myself amongst friends, family or in the course of an online discussion.

    I believe, as you have opined, that Web 3.0 will bring a compromise. A word that has been underused in these past 10 days.

    It comes down to being offered choices, controls, and as in “real” life, having good judgment and making responsible decisions depending upon the venue, topic or audience.

    I thoroughly enjoyed your opinions.

    (Excerpts taken from an earlier post I made on Danah Boyd’s blog.)

  2. Jonathan Groves

    Brown, you are on fire! As you know, I am one of those in the “some things are private” camp, but your point about the resulting hegemony is spot on. Without openness, honesty, and transparency, can there truly be community? Wonderfully thought-provoking post.

    So when will you start Boobbook? 😉

  3. changingnewsroom

    Thanks, Groves! Hehe, I’ll get right on BoobBook right after I found Liberate the Penis dot com (I’m getting nervous that just by using these words will get the spambots fired up.)

  4. FYI, I flash my boobs in public a *lot* and have yet to be fired.

    I am not entirely versed in all things hegemony (I’ve read a lot about the concept, but don’t know if I have all the philosophical underpinnings behind it), but I am wondering if there is a distinction between society-wide hegemony and the kind of hegemony that comes from self-selecting to be part of a group.

    You make a good case about the former. We have these mores and beliefs that drive our notions of privacy, and by accepting it and playing along without questioning we are feeding that beast. To the degree this is your point, I am persuaded.

    But the latter point is where I am hung up. We all choose to be part of things where the values are in line with our own and membership sort of depends on that. You join the Moose Lodge because you value fraternity. You play softball because you value activity. You watch the Packers because you value Brett Favre. :p

    Joking aside, it seems that the values that are essential to the formation of groups are described by some in sociology, etc. as a type of hegemony. I’ve never bought into this. There is a difference between joining a group based on self-selection of an already-shared value and blindly accepting values of a group. The latter feels like hegemony to me, the former does not.

    The reason I bring up this long-winded point, other than to make a gratuitous Brett Favre reference, is I want us to be able to reserve in theory the notion that people want privacy for themselves. That they truly value keeping some information in the private sphere regardless of society’s rules and mores, and by not oversharing they are being true to themselves (and perhaps a family or social group that shares the same values) rather than just submitting to The Man.

    The way I see it, you’re describing the middle clump of the bell curve as hegemony. The oversharers on one end clearly aren’t, but what about the extreme undersharers on the other?

    I guess what I am saying is that while I love your point about hegemony (honestly hadn’t considered it before), I want to be careful that we don’t equate undersharing with being brainwashed by the Powers That Be. Individuals do have these impulses on their own, and sometimes they even organize into little clubs and etiquette societies that try to model their values. And that’s OK, so long as they don’t mistake their own values for societal norms and try to push that on us. Obviously that idealistic view is the exact opposite of how it usually goes and thus that is what makes your post worth reading (and maybe even putting into my course readings).

    OK, that was long and winding. If none of that made sense, let me know.

    • changingnewsroom

      I understand what you are saying, and I don’t think any of this is simple or that it can be viewed only one way. I’m no longer a huge cultural studies scholar and I’m rusty on the literature, I think that one could argue that hegemony is operating at the ideological level that is beyond our everyday consciousness, and that it is constraining the kinds of choices we make about what groups to join (etc.) by creating certain values and assumptions that often go unexamined or that we aren’t even aware of. One of the best courses I ever took was a feminist sociology class at Penn that forced you to critically interrogate the assumptions that are so core to those who grew up in a liberal democracy that are so taken-for-granted that you really aren’t aware that you have them – but they aren’t the only way of seeing the world.

      I don’t think as a pragmatic matter there is NO room for individual choice, but that we just have to be more willing to critically interrogate those choices. And I don’t see a lot of that when it comes to privacy.

      For example, take this NYT magazine piece that a lot of people have shared around. It leads with that story of the 25-year-old teacher trainee who got fired for a Facebook picture of her holding a plastic cup that may have contained alcohol, a legal substance that the vast majority of Americans use at least occasionally. That story has incensed me since it came out, and I think that all too often the discourse around it is cautionary – don’t share stuff like that on Facebook! To me, that is an effing call to arms, and if I worked in that district as a teacher, you better believe I’d be raising hell. That an adult can’t hold a plastic cup at a party without being seen as a menace to children is seriously ridiculous, and I’m sorry but even if you don’t like it its not your job to judge. Or just yesterday a Memphis councilwoman apologized for pole dancing (fully clothed) on some boat cruise. Are you kidding me? Is this Footloose all over again? We can’t dance anymore without public sanction? The point here is that these kinds of issues are often framed in the “what should we share publicly” storyline as opposed to the “why should we judge other people for this?” storyline? It also means that certain prejudices get free rein – I personally think it’s much more likely for women, for example, to get in trouble for stuff like this than a man. Is the teacher trainee entitled to have privacy if she desires it? Yes, she is. But our uncritical acceptance that some things should be hidden is where I get mad.

  5. Right. I think my underlying point, then, is that people do link up around certain values and have a greater need to belong even if the cost is openness. Human needs are a weird thing sometimes and vary by person. You and I might stand here and think hegemony is the worst thing ever, but for some people that is a lesser cost than the feeling of isolation that comes with sharing. I wrestle with this one personally and deeply pretty much every day in my social media spaces, but that’s a long story for another day.

    Where I think your argument hits the mark the best, really, is that it’s important to critically examine whether those mores we adopt for ourselves are being outwardly applied to others. Your pole-dancing council woman is a great example.

    I think the only reason I take this line is that it can be very easy for a Shirkyphile to go overboard and begin to think you can apply his ideas without any transaction cost. There is a tremendous social cost to doing it this way, and most of it is in the form of deconstructing crappy institutions that should be bulldozed. But I tell my students that we in turn need to be aware that fixing some problems means we create others, and that not all old-institutions and ways of thinking are worth tossing.

    There *is* value in privacy for privacy’s sake, in my view, but the strength of this new age in sharing should give us reason to reevaluate our own motives and weigh it against the benefits.

  6. Pingback: Jury Still Out On What Google+ Means For Journalists | The Changing Newsroom

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