Openness is becoming the default social norm
Toronto Star | February 14, 2010 | Ryan Bigge
If you're curious, and you have $20, you can now pre-order a copy of the 2009 Felton Annual Report. When published next month, this limited-edition, 16-page dossier will reveal, among other things, that last year New York graphic designer Nicholas Felton consumed 12 different types of nuts (including pistachio), 65 different vegetables (including dandelion) and 50 flavours of beer (including Red Stripe).
Felton has been crunching and graphing his personal data into whimsical reports for the past five years, promoting his design skills and making oversharing aesthetically pleasing. But these reports also mean that Felton, at least according to writer and transsexual activist Andrea James, is a "non-private person."
If the phrase "non-private person" sounds like a sinister sci-fi label for an undesirable category of extra-terrestrial, you're half right. In a Jan. 6 guest post on BoingBoing.net, James argued that "The reason Kim Kardashian and the Jersey Shore denizens have risen to positions of prominence in popular culture is because they each epitomize the non-private person. They have nothing to hide, so nothing that becomes public knowledge can hurt them."
There's nothing particularly wrong with being a non-private person (although calling yourself "The Situation" is downright silly) provided you avoid private people. Or vice-versa. James suggests that the previously private Tiger Woods was caught cheating on his wife because he began consorting with non-private people. Adam Giambrone, meanwhile, discovered that a seemingly private person can be convinced to go public given the wrong mix of deceit and heartbreak.
Giambrone might take some solace knowing that secrecy and decorum won't be a problem for much longer. As Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg noted in early January, "People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people." Zuckerberg claims that being public, not private, is the new social norm – although even he adjusted his settings last December after Gawker published personal photographs taken from his Facebook page.
Zuckerberg's punishment didn't end with the world being able to see him hug his favourite teddy bear. In mid-January, social media researcher danah boyd responded to Zuckerberg's comments on her blog zephoria.org, arguing that "Privacy isn't a technological binary that you turn off and on. Privacy is about having control of a situation."
(In the spirit of non-privacy, I should mention that I met boyd briefly at an NYU conference in the fall of 2006. We both spoke on a panel about social networks. Afterwards, out by the snack table, she said, "You rock." To which I replied, "No, you rock." Such is the heady discourse of young academics.)
Boyd also chastised Zuckerberg for failing to understand the power, privilege and "huge social costs" involved in living one's life in public. She also noted that "No one makes money off of creating private communities in an era of `free.' It's in Facebook's economic interest to force people into being public, even if a few people break up with Facebook in the process." Or, to put it another way, Zuckerberg's approach to profit and privacy does not "rock."
Andrea James also picked up on the financial aspects of privacy in her BoingBoing.net post, isolating a dichotomy between "privacy as a commodity, vs. privacy as a right." For Felton and his annual report, the divulging of his private life is a literal commodity, albeit a manageable and humorous one. Reality TV stars like Jon Gosselin or octomom Nadya Suleman rent access to their private lives in exchange for fame and money, selling a bit of themselves each episode.
There is no guarantee, however, that becoming a non-private person will be financially remunerative. Toronto's Raymi the Minx (aka Lauren White) has spent the past nine years blogging her every move without quite becoming a household name. But the moment Raymi stopped being public by failing to mention the dissolution of her engagement, The Globe and Mail wrote an article about her sudden silence.
As part of a guest lecture at Ryerson last fall (the spoils of fame for a Canadian blogger) Raymi answered students' questions. "I reserve the right for my own privacy when the time calls for it," she said in a quasi-transcript she posted online. "People are always expecting more and more and then they call you a [expletive deleted] narcissist once you acquiesce. You just can't win, basically."
The inverse of the commodification of privacy is also true. Which might explain why Eliot Spitzer spent $4,300 for a prostitute, instead of a more recession-friendly $100.
"I'm no sex-trade expert, but surely the sex couldn't be 43 times better," wrote Rob Horning on his blog Marginal Utility back in March of 2008. "Spitzer had to pay an extreme amount to ensure the prostitute's silence and trustworthiness. Sort of the same reason umpires make a lot of money, to discourage them from fixing games."
Given his recent admission that he had multiple affairs, Giambrone might want to wait a year and release a tell-all 2010 Annual Report. I suspect he'll sell more than the 2,000 copies Felton offers each year.