The Erosion of Privacy and the Rise of Publicness…and why it’s a good thing

Gabriel García Márquez once wisely observed, “Everyone has three lives: a public life, a private life, and a secret life.”

In an era where individuals take to social networks to not only connect with one another, but also share experiences, the “statusphere” as I call it, is transforming a media ecosystem into a very personal EGOsystem.

In social media, we choose the life we broadcast through every status update, tweet, video, post, comment, and like we share. And, whether we realize or disregard it, the culmination of these fragmented digital shadows we cast, depict a semblance of the real you. The question is, which sliver of you do people say and how are you judged in the absence of your narration or explanation of what’s assembled.

We live in interesting times and while we’re fascinated by the ability to share our thoughts and experiences to an aspiring online audience, we’re still in the early stages of learning just what it all means and doesn’t mean.

Indeed, we are the last generation to know privacy as it was. It is now something that will have to be taught. And more importantly, what we share online, will now require thoughtful curation to deliberately construct a more accurate and desirable portrayal of who you are and how you wish to be perceived.

Profiles as a Window to the Soul

You are the star of your own reality show – online and ultimately in the real world. In the motion picture trailer for the “Social Network,” a fictionalized account of the origins of Facebook, a rendition of Radiohead’s Creep is sung a cappella. A key verse stands out, “I want you to notice…” And there in lies the inspiration for social networking, the understated, willful and dramatic leap between privacy and publicness. This transformation is propelled by the very human need for acceptance, the trading of solitude for a new type of freedom. We do so in the hopes of earning the attention and connection of our peers and peers of peers. We hope to connect not only with those we know, but also those we wish to know as well as those who wish to know us.

The Individualist Revolution as I call it is actually much more empowering than we may realize today. The modification in this new societal architecture is as alarming as it is awakening and advantageous. While we are in control of our privacy settings in each of the various social networks in which we engage, we are also in control of all that we share and refrain from sharing. Consider social networking as a choice between monologue and inner monologue. If our words speak to who we are then our silence is equally telling.

We are perceived by more than our avatars, bios, wallpaper, apps, and custom tabs.

In social networks, we are the architects of our experiences and also the personal impressions we create and display for others to interpret. I believe that the empowerment in social networking is evident in the confidence we gain from participating online and sharing personal aspects, thoughts, vulnerabilities, and knowledge. We’re inspired to amplify what we share based on the responses we engender. We receive rewards as a result of meaningful engagement, which range from comments, accolades, shares, likes, posts, bookmarks and most importantly, requests for new connections. Over time, how we participate online equates to varying levels of trust, respect, friendship, and relationships – each representative of social capital.
While human beings are social creatures by nature, to what extent is By definition, I’m an introvert. I’ve used social networking as a means to facilitate conversations online and also offline and I’ve experienced something quite special over the years – the ability to expand my social graph online and in real world settings. As a result, I believe the loss of certain aspects of privacy as we knew it opens doors and unlocks opportunities for us.

This newfound system of rewards equalizes networking by injecting doses of confidence every time we earn positive reactions. It encourages us to gain prominence online and offline for the (low or high) price of layered privacy. Essentially, we are forcing a personal metamorphosis from introvert to digital extrovert.

The Social Economics of Publicness and Privacy

Facebook and socialized media encourage participation and increasing aspects of publicness in exchange for a form of recompense. We are compelled to share information for the instant reward of reaction and linkage. These exchanges serve as currency and set the framework for a social economy where capital is earned and spent in public markets. Experts agree citing economic implications where the value of privacy and publicity have flipped.

Sam Lessin, founder of Drop.io astutely captured this socio-economical shift when he spoke at a recent gathering of technology entrepreneurs in New York, “Privacy was once free. Publicity was once ridiculously expensive. Now the opposite is true: You have to pay in a mix of cash, time, social capital, etc. if you want privacy.”

Moved by Lessin’s statement, Jeff Jarvis, a noted media pundit and author of Public Parts, a wonderful book that explores the benefits of publicness, observed, “Once-abundant privacy is now scarce. Once-scarce publicness is now abundant.”

This is where education becomes paramount. Privacy is now in desperate need of elucidation to all generations in order to architect our “personal brands” and shape the experiences and perceptions of others. The painful truth is that what hasn’t changed in new media, is that people are inherently judgmental. Therefore, I’d argue that publicity, not publicness is abundant. It is this publicity that accounts for the noise in social streams. I would hope that publicness could resemble the notion of “publicy” and not publicity While it doesn’t roll of the tongue with eloquence and grace, what it represents is the vanguard for controlled and managed publicity.

In the social economy, capital is accumulated through curated and intentional publicness or publicy. Inversely, the acts of privacy hinder its accumulation.

In describing publicy, Laurent Haug paints a picture of what he refers to as the “plausible you,” but it is his idea around new privacy and intention that serves as the light at the end of the tunnel:

Now that you are back in the driver seat, you have your privacy back. Just of a different kind. You have built a space that could be called “publicy”, or “the plausible me”. It is a credible space where people expect to see information about you. Whatever credible information you say in there will be taken as true by the world. That is your new privacy. A space that is public but that you control, where you can say anything you want and have it taken as true.

As Scott McNealy bluntly put it, “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.”

The question is, knowing this, what are you going to do about it?

While getting over it is a bit extreme, Let’s just say that you have all of the power at your fingertips to define the “plausible you” – the person and brand you wish others to see, admire, respect, and trust. It’s a shift from privacy where Jarvis’ idea of publicness allows us to become the “change we wish to see” to build more meaningful relationships and through transparency earn a new level of trust that unlocks new opportunities.

In Conclusion…But Really, It’s the Beginning

We are the last generation to know privacy as it was. Now, privacy is something that requires education. What works against us, also works for us, and as such, our reputation, our brand, and how we’re perceived is within our grasp to define and shape. We are not at the mercy of Google or any social network. It is up to us to take control of our identity and guide the image and findable information of those we know and care about.

This is our moment to cease the casting of meaningless digital shadows and embrace a more meaningful and beneficial method of casting exemplary digital projections.

In light of a much more public web, perhaps its in our best interest to follow the wise words of George Bernard Shaw, “Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”

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  • http://twitter.com/bethencourtinLA Gonzalo Condés

    Great post. thanks for it. It will hopefully trigger some thoughts about what do we show of ourselves in social Media.

    • http://www.briansolis.com/ briansolis

      Indeed. Hopefully!

  • http://www.atlanticwebworks.com/ Kristen Daukas

    Ah yes…. try navigating not just your social media “personality” and your clients social media but the social media lessons and monitoring of 3 daughters 14, 11 and 9 who really have no privacy boundaries. If you were to read my emails or texts, I would find that to be an invasion of privacy – not them. They have no issue with anyone doing that. Except parents, of course.

    • http://www.facebook.com/david111780 David Allen Martin

      Wow Kristen. That’s surprising. E-mail is VERY private. Even though I don’t do anything that my mother wouldn’t approve of (everyone has lapses sometimes) I wouldn’t someone just going through my e-mail. It contains info about everything I do. I would argue that e-mail is not as important to your daughters because they do most of their interacting through social media instead of e-mail. Interesting points though! Thanks!

  • http://twitter.com/larrywaight Larry Waight

    Great Post Brian. The Internet has had a big impact on Society. Adapt or Die RIGHT?

  • Jeffrey Pearson

    I couldn’t agree more with what was written in this post. As a current college student, the influence social media is now having on individuals is always a topic of discussion. My generation is now at the forefront of this shift to a world where privacy is a rarity. In this respect, there is certainly a bit of a generational cleavage regarding knowledge on the subject. All it takes is a quick conversation with parents to realize this. There are a few points you touched on that I found particularly interesting. It is true that everyone leaves pieces of who they are on various social media. Individuals looking at these different pieces have no way of knowing if the evidence truly coincides with the person or if it is a mere coincidence. They simply have to rely on assumptions. Also, I don’t want to sound cynical, but I feel that an overall narcissistic mentality now exists in society. I wonder if this caused the rise in social media or if social media caused it. Lastly, I think it is definitely true that social media has greatly changed how we interact with our peers. It adds a unique channel for communication.

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  • Marie Pijanowski

    Excellent writing and insights contained herein, Brian. Appreciate the depth of the implications you have captured. For me, this article evokes a deep intake of breath and then the words, WOW!

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  • KevinPar

    not sure which is worse…leaving our digital shadows on government platforms or corporate platforms…do Goldman Sachs analysts need to have access to FB’s 1b profiles? Big brother has morphed into the Borg. We are being assimilated digitally, biometrically etc. Did I just read that India has biometric profiles on 300m of their citizens so far…The intent and agendas of the folks that hold our profiles needs to be much more transparent…right now it’s a one way st. we provide they collect.

    • http://twitter.com/ACQuinn1 A.C Quinn

      Yeah I object to the fact the world now requires, yes requires you to have internet to get a job, to interact in this fashion, that to have a gmail account means their computer reads my emails, i know this because all the adds i get are from the content of my emails, the fine print in the Facebook and twitter and every other agreements say they give your information to the government without warrants. Something to hide??? the stupid remark by all dickhead with little or no intelligence. Intellectual property of patents are being accessed illegally, writers content of songs and books accessed illegally, I have many patents and published work you F”N bet i have something to hide you bloody morons. Most intelligent people do.

  • http://twitter.com/shadesofsolveig Solveig Whittle

    I think social media and electronic connectedness is a pivotal tool in human evolution. As we continue to shape it, it continues to shape us. Transparency in social media brings us new challenges, and new opportunities, as individual social animals. How will individual and institutional human behavior change: will corporations adopt more ethical practices, not only in their communications strategies (just the tip of the iceberg), but in their production or HR practices? Will individuals change their behavior as the internet brings the less savory examples of our humanity to light (as with Violentacrez)? Will people act differently at social events, knowing that prospective employers can find pictures of them online? Social media is a great normalizer, in some sense, of human behavior, while in others, it is a way to showcase uniqueness. To me the interesting question is how will this new tool be used for the betterment of humanity and the planet. The exchange and propagation of ideas by organizations like TED and the Khan Academy (which I think are amazing democratizing education tools) is just the start. There are so many profound ways in which social interaction is going to affect our future, both individually and as a society.

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  • http://www.qnary.com/ Lauren Welles

    Brian, this post paints one of the clearest pictures yet of why we should be excited (not fearful) about the ways our world has changed and continues to change. The ‘first impression’ we have of someone today is often based on the things we can learn about them online. More than ever, individuals have a say in crafting the message that impression sends. Empowerment is the key word. Social networks provide us with opportunities to “choose the life we broadcast”; we are more empowered than ever to take our online identities into our own hands, and I do believe people are beginning to realize that the rise of publicness is an opportunity, not a threat. The reality is that many people don’t have the understanding of social media (or the time!) to think through all of this. That, actually, is the reason Qnary exists – to make the process more digestible so everyone can begin to benefit from his or her online data. Thanks for writing!

    Lauren, http://www.qnary.com

  • http://twitter.com/suzymaenyc SuzyMae

    Love the Radiohead reference. (I sang creep as i read the paragraph ha.) This post reminds me that what I share with the world via social media lends to the development of my personal brand as an artist. It’s a bit daunting, as it not only contributes to success, but also opens the doors to critique and judgement in open forums. Gotta be able to handle the intensity of it all, when success occurs, and when it doesn’t.

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  • http://evenonesparrow.blogspot.com even one sparrow

    Brian, this is something that I have struggled with as I gained an audience to my blog. A huge part of my blogging (or maybe the whole part?) is centered around vulnerability — that’s why my audience comes, that’s why I write, that’s where my creativity flows. But I became a little freaked out at the lack of privacy I was creating — for myself, my family (especially my children) that I closed up shop in March. But then I kept sensing the urge to write, and so I jumped back into it. It’s hard to know the ramifications of such openness because it’s all still so new.

    Thanks for bringing this up. I like the idea of “thoughtful curation.” I can still “brand” myself and my blog as vulnerable, but I can be choosey as to how much I share. I have already done this, but wording it this way makes it more palpable — that I DO have control.

  • http://www.strategicpropositions.com Jose Palomino

    I like that you don’t just present this idea, but offer a tangible way to work through it: education. We need to educate ourselves, our employees, and our children to be curators of their online identities.

    One bit of advice I would offer: It’s easy to post something on a whim — and in the moment, the picture/status/idea seems great. But I would recommend waiting a day or two, and maybe sharing that post with someone else to get their take on it. Or for Twitter, make sure you put yourself in your customer’s shoes before sending a tweet. If you have employees tweeting on behalf of your company, make sure they adhere to your Twitter policy.

    And those of us in the blog world should continue to share stories, ideas, and our own experiences on this topic. The more we talk about it, the more educated we will be, and the more carefully curated our online presences will be.

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  • Olivia

    I’m a journalism student at the second largest university in Ohio and I come from a very small town. Around home, people do not really understand the impact/power of social media and I too only saw Facebook as nothing more than that. I see people post ridiculous photos, statuses, tweets on a daily basis. We are not educated about the power of social media. Or maybe we are and just don’t believe in its impact. The world is a small place in the big scheme of things, and social media only makes it smaller. You can chose how private or public you want your life to be on social networks. Posting on a whim can be detrimental to your career. I think you’re right, we just need more education.

    • http://www.briansolis.com/ briansolis

      Well said Olivia…

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ABOUT ME

Brian Solis is a digital analyst, anthropologist, and also a futurist. In his work at Altimeter Group, Solis studies the effects of disruptive technology on business and society. He is an avid keynote speaker and award-winning author who is globally recognized as one of the most prominent thought leaders in digital transformation.

His most recent book, What's the Future of Business: Changing the Way Businesses Create Experiences (WTF), explores the landscape of connected consumerism and how business and customer relationships unfold in four distinct moments of truth. His previous book, The End of Business as Usual, explores the emergence of Generation-C, a new generation of customers and employees and how businesses must adapt to reach them. In 2009, Solis released Engage, which is regarded as the industry reference guide for businesses to market, sell and service in the social web.

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