We All Live In Public Now. Get Used To It.


As the Web becomes more social, privacy becomes harder and harder to come by. People are over-sharing on Facebook and Twitter, broadcasting their whereabouts every ten steps on Foursquare and Gowalla, and uploading photos and videos of their most private moments to the Web for all to see. It’s easy to say that privacy is dead, we all live in public now, and just deal with it.

But things are a bit more complicated. It used to be that we lived in private and chose to make parts of our lives public. Now that is being turned on its head. We live in public, like the movie says (except via micro-signals not 24-7 video self-surveillance), and choose what parts of our lives to keep private. Public is the new default.

Stowe Boyd, along with others before him, calls this new state of exposure “publicy” (as opposed to privacy or secrecy). He writes:

The idea of publicy is no more than this: rather than concealing things, and limiting access to those explicitly invited, tools based on publicy default to things being open and with open access.

I don’t particularly care for the neologism, but the idea behind it is spot on. This change represents a major shift in the social fabric, and it is only now just getting started. If you thought there was a lot of hair-pulling over privacy in 2009, just wait until 2010. Facebook’s new privacy policies which favor more public sharing, will be a big driver of this shift, as will the continued adoption of Twitter, which by its very design makes personal utterances public. Then there are startups like Blippy that go even further by turning every single purchase into a public statement.

It takes some getting used to the idea of living in public. As I discussed several hours ago with Andrew Keen, in public on Twitter, instead of making the private public, we will make the public private.” When public is the default, you deliberately select what to keep private instead of the other way around.

It’s not that privacy disappears. But it becomes more a matter of emphasis and a conscious decision. Boyd points out:

Some people are the web equivalent of nudists: they live very open lives on the web, revealing the intimate details of their relationships, what they think of friends and co-workers, their interactions with family and authorities. But . . . even these apparently wide open web denizens may keep some things private, or secret.

Privacy and secrecy are two different things. Secrets can be shared, and thus become “social objects that link those sharing the secrets together, and excluding others,” writes Boyd. Making it easy for people to move from the public to the private, and in between, will become increasingly important for Web companies.

Getting back to the original question, privacy will still live on, but will be so transformed as to become almost unrecognizable. No doubt, many people will mistake it for dead and keep pulling out their hair.  The rest of us will go on with our public lives.