Mixed Bag, Soft

Facebook Kills Privacy (but that’s ok)

Thursday, February 26, 2009  

Kids at Ciber Cafe in a small town in Tucuman, ArgentinaThe other day, without realizing it, my own father changed the way we communicate forever. Actually I was an accomplice in this, as I accepted his friend request on Facebook.

I love Facebook now, but didn’t start out that way. I was hesitant at first to join in after spending plenty of time with Friendster, Tribe, MySpace, Fotolog, and others. I didn’t see the social networking sites as much more than social masturbation and a return to the shallow schoolyard game of becoming popular.  I begrudgingly signed up for Facebook when my friend Albert sent me an invitation in September 2007. Quickly I found other friends via its tools such as uploading all my contacts, and discovering mutual friends of friends.

Before I saw it as ridiculous that a friend of mine had accumulated nearly 1000 friends on MySpace, but since then  I have had little problem reaching over 200 on Facebook, and am still wishing more friends would sign up. Furthermore, I don’t accept every request in order to keep it more “intimate.” If I don’t stumble across old friends, they find me, back to high school and earlier. Yes, we had great times back in high school, but we’ve gone nearly 30 years along divergent paths so why change that now. I didn’t even know I was gay back then, and you may even have kids older than we were in those days. For me high school happened so long ago, that some names barely ring a bell. Nonetheless I am now connected with a handful of friends from that era, and it’s been positive. I am also connected to a group from college. Well two groups since I went to two colleges: my journalist colleagues from the liberal arts school and my artist friends from art school. A few are even known journalists and fine artists. And there are various others from more recent days, including several newish Argentine friends.

I have just a couple gratuitous friends, and one is Bruce LaBruce, the gay skinhead-loving Canadian filmmaker. I don’t know him personally, but for some reason a few friends were already friends with him, so I thought “how cool, why not?” I feel like a creepy stalker when my feed informs me that “Bruce is spending a quiet night at home with his gay husband.”

Fernando en la compuOK, back to about how my father changed the course of western civilization. I had always assumed that a social network tool like Facebook provides me a way to amplify regular communication, nothing more. Being in Argentina, far away from friends in the US, it helps me to write, chat, show photos and otherwise communicate with those I miss. Yes, Facebook succeeds at that, but I hadn’t realized how far beyond that it would go.

Down to the “People you may know” feature (I may have the exact words wrong since I use Facebook in Spanish and am translating), Facebook is very efficient and truly successful at connecting you to everyone you may know. I was already connected to all of my siblings and a few other relatives, and once my father signed up for Facebook he quickly found me there too, just by uploading his contacts. He wasn’t even looking for me, but Facebook wanted him to find me regardless.

I am fairly open with my parents, but not that open. That is more their wish than mine. And amongst 200 friends there is a mixed bag, including some professional contacts. I now think twice before I post anything. You won’t see anymore: “Michael just smoked the most amazing bud grown right on his terrace.” Now, I will probably even think twice before I let my friends  know “Michael is spending a quiet night at home with his boyfriend.” Maybe that is being overly cautious, and I don’t really self-censor (at least I won’t admit that here), but still the effect of making me think twice is inhibiting my free communication.

Everyone needs uninhibited communication amongst intimate friends. Even US presidents need some form of totally-private communication, as Dick Cheney has argued. Thankfully for personal communication I still have good old fashion email, Skype, and within Facebook there is personal messaging and chatting.

But I am already committed to the public side of Facebook and do get a lot out of communicating amongst over 200 people simultaneously (for example, I announced this blog entry to my facebook friends). And, I check out my friends at least as much as I hope they check out my profile.  So from now on I will maintain my Facebook persona for my father, my old high school friends, recent colleagues and clients, … potentially everybody I know. I’ll try to avoid self-censorship, but that is impossible because my unconscious knows that those 25 questions I answer publicly will be consumed publicly.

Facebook is always in the news for privacy concerns, but I don’t think that it’s due to any nefarious acts on its part. In fact Facebook is more private than most other social networking communities. The privacy concerns come from its users beginning to wake up to this reality of maintaining a public persona. Facebook has not violated any of the Bill of Rights, but it has been so successful at connecting people that it is chipping away at our privacy solely because of its appeal.

My dad’s contribution–ok and with my help too, and that of Mark Zuckerberg, plus so many millions of Facebook users–has brought us into the 21st century where we now have a new public persona to maintain in addition to just being ourselves. And I think we are all becoming adept at it, an online sort of literacy. Forget Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes, we are all doomed to the lives of perpetual celebrities now and forever.

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