Monday, November 5, 2007

Private Faces in Private Spaces

W.H. Auden wrote that "it is better to have private faces in public spaces than public faces in private spaces."

That classic sentiment of a mid-twentieth century liberal is now almost quaint given where we have now arrived. In the age of the internet, the strict separation between a public and private world is increasingly untenable.

A case in point: a report today on NPR's "Morning Edition" noted that the wildly popular youth "networking" website, "Facebook," will be opening up its pages to advertisers who are hungrily licking their lips to get at the treasure trove of information about students on the site. Students post a wealth of information about themselves on the site - including, at times, some rather compromising information that has hurt them when they have applied for jobs! - such as favorite music, sexual orientation, political orientation, links to all their "friends" - and all this information is going to save advertisers immense amounts of research, effort and money in providing a whole range of advertising profiles.

A student once asked me what kind of social life we could possibly have had in college before the advent of Facebook (hell, he was surprised that I'm old enough to remember the days before the internet and even the personal computer - and I'm not that old...). I replied that we would hang out in dorm rooms shooting the breeze until odd hours of the morning. Perhaps our communication was less efficient - we had fewer "friends," as the word is promiscuously used in the Facebook networking world (in which making friends with someone consists of sending an electronic invitation) - but our conversations were meandering, leisurely, and ongoing. I wonder what kind of good life our students can achieve if one of their primary forms of socialization so easily, and so readily, will be turned to the ends of commerce and consumption. Do they know their online openness is being sliced and diced by the captains of industry? When words like "friendship" have been so debased, it may no longer strike one as odd that the social world one inhabits can so easily be turned to utilitarian ends.


Erin said...

A friend sent me a link to your blog and I've been enjoying it immensely. Your last few posts have prompted all sorts of thoughts for me but this time I'm lured out of lurking.

I'm fascinated with this issue of friendship via the internet. I joined Facebook recently and love the ease with which I can connect with people and I'm addicted to the scrabble application. At the same time I'm disturbed by all of the personal information younger folks put on their profiles (I too remember the days of writing letters because there was no email). One of the concerns I have too is about the lack of civility of some students in their comments. Rude, abusive comments about staff at the university are posted for all to see, for instance. And our university at least does not seem to have any policy in place to curb abuse. So it is a strange situation when people have the sense of having a wide circle of 'friends' and yet seem to feel less connection to non-friends.

I'll be forwarding a link to your post to a friend who is working on this topic and thank you again for a really interesting blog.

Black Sea said...

I believe that Milan Kundera described the 'glass house' as a kind of totalitarian ideal, and argued that the cultivation of privacy is ultimately an act in defiance of totalitarianism.

So when your student asked what kind of social life you managed to have prior to the advent of Facebook, you might have answered, "One that regarded privacy as worthy of respect, and essential to friendship."

This might've given him something to think about, preferably alone, and not in (on?) a chatroom.

Anonymous said...

Facebook users are, however, increasingly limiting their profiles so that they can be viweed only by "friends."

Audacious Epigone said...

Facebook has enabled users to get at personal information volunteered by its users since its inception in early 2004. That the company will now be facilitating advertisers in doing so is more the continuation of an expected progression than something surprisingly scandalous. Admonitions against treating the most public of publicly accessible places as though they were the pages in a personal diary are hardly novel. Social networking sites amplify public exposure, but they do not create it.

Facebook easily allows users to hide their information--even the knowledge of their very existences--from those they do not specifically 'grant the right' of viewership to. There is no betrayal of privacy, as users must consciously allow for marketers to have access to the information they put on their profiles. Filling out sweepstakes entries or responding to snail mail and e-mail surveys are more surreptitious ways of obtaining the information these marketers are after. Allowing publicly-volunteered marketing data to be effortlessly obtained allows for more efficiency and possibly even less intrusion into the lives of those who are especially protective of their corporate anonymity.

As a caveat, I should say that this praise for such effortless privacy is a contemporary one. The staggering success of Mark Zuckerberg's company is accompanied by its seeming directionlessness.

The legions of youngsters who are intent on living their lives as open books are going to be made even easier pickings for marketers than ever before. But in a free society, protecting the careless from themselves is an impossible undertaking.

More unsettling than the providing of information about willing parties to other willing parties is the narcissism social networking sites engender. Never has it been easier to look at yourself from a thousand angles, or to witness how others look at you from ten thousand angles. Fortunately for me, the site has become so cluttered with applications, 'information' streams, and action trackers that I now use it exclusively as email 2.0 and occasionally to hunt for people I once knew.