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.


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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The other day I went on a site to order a product. The next day that same website’s advertisement was at the top of my Facebook sidebar. Coincidence? Probably not.

Privacy is huge. While scooping data should be frowned upon, I am startled by the number of people who do not take responsibility for their own actions when it comes to protecting privacy. We access private information in public places; we don’t actually READ the TOS for a site we join; we never bother to look at the actual privacy settings on the sites we’re using. We need to stop complaining, stop copying/pasting stupid privacy messages that aren’t true, and take responsibility for ourselves.

Google deserved what it got.

Posted by DonaCollins | Report as abusive

Unfortunately, most people under age 30 have no memory of a life without socialized everything and to them it is the norm, a “normal” that is foreign to older generations who actually knew what privacy was. I shudder to think that when I reach retirement, the generation running the world will be the one that replaced personal interaction with electronic socialization with no grounding in reality or principle.

Posted by LysanderTucker | Report as abusive

While “data scooping” in Google’s mistake is obviously wrong, I find it unsurprising that this happened. The fact that Google has so much power that it caters specific advertisements or articles to you based on previous web searches you’ve made is incredible. But we can’t change the fact that Google knows everything about us. Everything we’ve ever typed in our Google search box is locked up somewhere in a file with our name printed on it. The fact is, nobody cares. Although private settings exist on a variety of different social platforms, there’s almost always a way of retrieving information that you don’t want others to see (especially if you posted it on social media in the first place). Privacy is important yes, but with the extent of social media’s growth and the amount of sharing people do everyday–it makes it almost impossible for huge companies like Google to not “accidentally” data scoop.

Posted by rashel8a | Report as abusive

Whats the difference between an online store and a shop at the mall. Both are capable or collecting your private data. People just choose to misunderstand what is happening.

Posted by ThatGuyMalakai | Report as abusive

The problem is that there was and is a tacit assumption on the part of most users that the default was the Assumption of Privacy. While this assumption may be foolish, it was the starting point. Now, most of these companies start with the opposite assumption that all information about their customers is fair game, not just for them but their trading partners in spite of all of the legal restrictions that say otherwise.

There is a big disconnect between the expectation and the reality and the corporations are generally winning the battle.

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive

one of the solutions of this is to not to leave the digital trail of what you say in the social media. The biggest problem with social media is that it leaves everything you say in the internet and people access it or government can spy on it. I think, it is new platform which allows you to share in the moment, stays the post for sometime and after post is stale it should automatically delete the post so that nobody can access the post again. The platform which does exactly that is . Use it to stay away from social media privacy consequences.

Posted by bimmah | Report as abusive