Social media life: What privacy?

By Anne Taylor Fleming
March 18, 2013

It was almost quaint: Google’s recent apology for privacy violations. Granted, it came in the face of a lawsuit where the company got its hand slapped for “data-scooping,” a wonderful phrase that could be the slogan of our current lives. Google was found to have crossed the line with its Street View Project, where in addition to photographing houses and buildings along the world’s streets and avenues, the Googilians scooped up all manner of personal information from zillions of unencrypted wireless networks.

Really? I’m shocked. Not. Who doesn’t data scoop is my question?

I look at a bathing suit on line. For the next few weeks, whenever I open my laptop it pops right up. It’s like I am being stalked by a bathing suit. I vow to never ever succumb again to online shopping, a resolve that crumbles faster than my New Year’s resolutions.

Every day I am online giving away — not just bits of information but bytes of my soul, or at least that’s the way it feels. Obviously the social media sites, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Foursquare, et al, are the most glaring examples. We can complain about Google and about the predatory identity thieves out there who hack into our so-called private information. But the truth is we are the saboteurs of our own privacy.

We have signed on for this ride. We have put ourselves out there to an astonishing degree. I do some of this myself: I blog therefore I am. People post back: lovely things, nasty things. I don’t know these people. Why do I care?

I see in myself what I see in others, a turn towards the spotlight — or the cyberlight, if you will. A willingness to live a large part of life in public, to give away part of myself, to spill my guts, my sorrows — over losing a mother, for example, as I did not so long ago — in a cheap and easy way.

There is our now reflexive-compulsive need to run to the laptop or message or tweet. Even the president and the pope are tweeting (the last one anyway; we don’t know about the new one). We are on a share high. We don’t sit with the grief or, for that matter, with the joy. We don’t let it register, penetrate the nerve endings.

In our frantic efforts to recycle our deepest feelings, they become, in the process, less deep. We cheapen ourselves and our memories. We don’t even let them settle before repackaging them for public consumption. For shame. I feel that often: that shame.

Two Steubenville, Ohio, teenage boys Sunday were found guilty of raping an inebriated girl at a party, as other kids tweeted and texted about the incident and sent out picture and videos. She was so drunk that the teenager found out the details of her sexual assault on social media. These texts and online videos were key to the charges against the high-school football stars. I would say: unbelievable. But on some level it isn’t anymore. By the dark grace of our technology, we are all voyeurs now — even of a rape.

On a different level, something else is happening: My writing is getting worse, slicker — like that of so many others. Not so long ago, a friend sent me the Facebook posting from someone she knows who had just fallen in love with an old boyfriend. It was a love letter to him. I was embarrassed by it — yes, because it was personal (a concept we have lost) — but mostly because it was goopy and badly written.

That’s the problem. Art takes time. Art takes quiet. Art is sacred. It will not come in a flash of self-revelation. We are becoming decidedly less artful. We are giving away so much so fast — the feelings, thoughts, highs and lows — that we don’t take the time to make all that into something larger, more lovely — certainly better written. We are all shooting from the hip not the heart — or better yet, the mind.

There is a growing tendency not to be authentic, to indulge in what I call the half-share. You are playing with being open, but are just learning how to play to the audience. I know; I do it. Sometimes I feel as if I have a cyber-doppelganger. Perhaps we all do: performing public selves that compete against our real, private selves, the ones who feel deeply and think deeply and create things of real value.

Obviously there is a loneliness driving a lot of this need. We live in a speedy, multitasking world where there is scant time to meet up with true friends so we just friend on the Internet. The quasi-intimate friending/unfriending dance is, if you think about it, a substitute for real connection. I have not succumbed to this — not out of virtue,  just out of laziness and something more. Meanies and bullies lurk. So do old school friends one doesn’t want to deal with again.

But I do get the longing, the sense of isolation that drives people to reach out, the manic need to keep those thumbs racing over the cell phone keyboard, to try to hook something real, someone. Hi, hi, hi, hey, hey, hey — it’s me, it’s me, where are you, I am eating, burping, laughing, wish you were here, wish you were here. Be my friend. Don’t be my friend.

The other thing, of course, is that online you are your own reality show star, the Instagram Kardashian. Clearly the reality TV show craze is part of the same need. We will do anything now in public. This is far from a new trend, though the technology has sped up our collective exhibitionism.

I remember when the first women I knew were having a husband or friend videotape the birth of their babies, and not just the newborn nuzzled on his or her mama’s tummy. I am talking about the slippery, bloody, coming-out-of-the-canal videos. Look, I know these images are beautiful to the participants (who, I am wagering, rarely look at them again). But there is just something about the whole enterprise that makes me squeamish and makes me sad. Is this not one of the more meaningful moments on earth and should it not therefore be held close? Is nothing sacred? That is the deeper question. Because if there is not, then we have lost something more profound than our inhibitions.

I don’t think the clock turns back here — despite the ruling against Google. Even if companies do their part in trying to respect our privacy, we have already, with great willingness, given oh so much of it away.

ILLUSTRATION: MATT MAHURIN

PHOTO (Insert): Trent Mays (L) and Ma’lik Richmond (R) during the Steubenville, Ohio, juvenile court trial at which Sunday they were were found guilty of raping a 16-year-old girl, while she was in a drunken stupor. The case gained national exposure due to social media. March 14, 2013.  REUTERS/Keith Srakocic/Pool

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