Posted by: Ben | March 12, 2010

Sharing, Privacy, and Attention

It’s become a common occurrence in my daily conversations with people that I’m told, “You’re more trusting of social media than I am”.  This sentiment is meant to convey that people value their privacy and that they don’t think everyone should share information about themselves, most of which is considered irrelevant.  That I am “trusting” means that they don’t share in my beliefs about the potential for social media and social networking.

Far from being isolated to only my intelligence and security friends, this permeates itself into all my relationships.  Even with people I know who work with computers and who I know online are actually quite secretive and think sites are “stupid”.  “Stupid” and “pointless” are common descriptors.

I have close friends who make no bones about telling me how much they dislike seeing people using social networking.  However, telling me this is the equivalent of me saying, “I think the fact that you like playing baseball is stupid” or “I think this thing that you enjoy is pointless”.

Back when I was in high school, I had to write a poem for class.  While the poem (and all attempts I’ve made to write poetry) was horrible, the sentiment behind the poem sticks with me now, even though I’m almost twice the age.  Read it:  “Not Unlike Muhammad II’s”.

The idea was that even though there are physical barriers we’ve built throughout history, such as the Great Wall (which, as I learned later, isn’t actually visible from space really), the main barriers on our planet are those of the soft brain tissue.

Humans are quite adept at hating.  They are adept at ignoring that which doesn’t confirm their stereotypes.  They are good at victimizing, humiliating, and taking advantage of others.  They are, not paradoxically, extremely bad at handling being victimized, being humiliated, being hated, being taken advantage of.  Evelin Lindner’s “Making Enemies:  Humiliation and International Conflict” argues that our world’s on-going conflicts are based on mutual humiliations and loss of face.

We have constructed for ourselves prisons within which we live.  See Doris Lessing’s “Prisons We Choose to Live Inside”.

I was reading through my old Soapboxes which spanned basically from when I was just about to graduate high school in 1996 up to about 2005 before I went to Iraq.  Early on, the complaint about my writing online was that anytime you put something online, you must want everyone, the whole world, to read it.  In essence, it would be defined as an act of wanting attention.

By the end of the Soapboxes, in 2005, the internet had matured and cultural norms had changed enough that blogging was about to become huge (as a result of GeoCities maturing into platforms like Blogger).  But also in 2005, I deployed to Iraq in a Special Forces unit as an intelligence collector.  I intended to post my thoughts and experiences from Iraq, being mindful of operational security.  My commander found out about it and hung me out to dry.  This was when the military decided to re-write its rules to silence servicemember online activities.

I felt like I eventually redeemed myself in the unit by working my tail off in another capacity, even though the injuries still smarted.

Luckily I was able to go back to school afterwards, and reconnected with my family’s anthropological roots and studied international power structures.  And now I have a job where I work in the trenches of social media.

But still this resistance exists in the many communities I am a part of.  People go on total black out on Facebook, and delete their Twitter accounts, and stop responding to e-mails, and so on.  People will test the waters of sharing online, but will harshly recoil back and disappear again.

I did my final orals presentation in grad school on, my platform for reputation management and identity formulation.  My panelists had absolutely NO clue what I was talking about.  Seriously.  I could have been speaking another language to these people, who were quite erudite and knew much about their fields.

The internet is now past its adolescence, I would estimate, and now we are beginning to see the emergence of geolocation, massive data crunching, and always-on instant updates from the internet of things.  And what it has helped me to understand is that all those people while I was growing up were wrong.  It wasn’t that I wanted attention.  It was that I wanted to share and to find like-minded people outside the communities I lived in where no one had any clue how to interact with me on certain issues.

The internet has allowed for a massive cultural community readjustment, where we have been freed in many cases from the isolated, narrow communities we are born into.

I am myself a member of many different communities:  midwesterners, Texans, half-Asians, Army Iraq veterans, international affairs universities in DC, online nerds, gamers, tennis fans, avid readers, basketball junkies, anthropology ancestry, IRC users, Obama voters, pro gay rights, DC contractors, Arabic speakers, web developers, iPhone owners, people who had bad skin and braces as teens.  Those are just some of the “communities” that I can associate with comfortably.   They are all important to me in varying degrees, but they help to define who I am, for better or for worse.   Other people would have more difficulty infiltrating the same communities I am a part of.  Amin Maalouf, also someone of diverse descent, writes of having multiple identities and multiple communities which he feels a part of, in his book “In the Name of Identity:  Violence and the Need to Belong”:  “I am posed between two countries, two or three languages, and several cultural traditions.”

Those who were born into money and in urban cities always had an advantage over those born in small villages.  They had more access to different people, different ideas, different eventual mates, more diversity.  Not that there isn’t value within tightly-knit villages or communities, but the circumstances must align very closely with the individual’s personality and values in order for it to work.  Within tightly-knit physical communities, aberrations are often discouraged and punished.

Said Stephen Downes, reviewing Lessing:

It is as though the group mind cannot be resisted, writes Lessing. After all, we all live in groups, we obtain our livlihood, our meanings, our identities, from groups. And when we’re in a group we tend to think as the group does; we may even , she notes, have deliberately sought out a group of “like-minded” people. People know how hard it is to stand against the group, and they often recollect, to their shame, having said something simply because other members of the group said it.

And the mechanics of this are interesting. “This mechanism, of obedience to the group, does not only mean obedience or submission to a small group, or one that is sharply determined, like a religion or political party. It means, too, conforming to those large vague, ill-defined collections of people who may never think of themselves as having a collective mind…” (p. 51)

The thing is, political leaders – and guards at prison camps – know this. They know that, if they eliminate the leaders, the mass of people will follow like sheep, adhereing to what they believe is the group mind, or to whatever has been substituted in place of the group mind. If they are lulled into believing that the group expects this or that they are capable of the most heinous atrocities.

Wouldn’t we then want to teach children: “If you are in this or that type of situation, you will find yourself, if you are not careful, behaving like a brute and a savage if you are ordered to do it. Watch out for these situations. You must be on your guard against your own most primitive reactions and instincts.” (p. 58)

But Lessing is not hopeful. “I cannot imagine any nation – or not for long – teaching its citizens to become individuals able to resist group pressures. And no political party, either.” (p. 61) Political parties use propaganda and manipulation, and the people who say they are in support of democracy, liberty and freedom don’t want to talk about it. They don’t want to know, and goodness, they don’t want to enable people to resist instruction – for then the people might be wrong.

We need, argues Lessing, to learn from this; we need especially to learn from the last two and a half centuries (since the French revolution) of “laboratories of social change.” We have to move beyond the picture of society as “insisting on orthodox, simple-minded slogan thinking” (p, 71) as we have seen in the communist world, the Islamic world and – dare I say? – today in the pro-war western world.

If it is society that oppresses us, writes Lessing, it is the individual who stands against it. “It is always the individual, in the long run, who will det the tone, provide the real development in a society.”

At some point, the nature of the internet will be fundamentally altered.  It may be sooner rather than later, because world governments seek to alter the internet’s protocols so as to make policing it more accurate, more structurally accessible to intelligence, more catered to individual countries’ pet interests.

There are two things that I’ve realized from people telling me they disagree with me:

  • People who don’t want to use social media are not the exception, still.  They are the rule.  I’m the exception.
  • It’s ironic because I’m the one who was in security and who probably manages his actual privacy (that is, IT security, discernment of what to share with others and what to keep secret, personal security and physical safety) better.  And yet I’m told that I’m the one being insecure.

The freedom of intellectual and creative space that the internet has given us is not assured forever.  Identity is always constructed, but it is not always constructed by oneself — mostly I think it is formed by your community, your family, and by your nation.

I can’t anticipate where the future will take us, but I do know that we need to develop tools to protect ourselves.  And “protecting” oneself has often just meant opting to share less, to disappear, to stay away from letting one’s data out into the wild.  This worked when our communities were disconnected, when the internet and eavesdropping did not make feasible attempts to connect all our dots.

Protecting ourselves in the future will mean using our reputations to defend ourselves against attacks.  Celebrities and public figures are the ones who are already dealing with these issues.  They have to ensure that their public reputations remain good enough to defend themselves against the “haters”, at a level that’s sufficient for their tolerance.   Most of us will not be able to hide.  We will want to, then, have a reputation that can be used to shield us from attacks and fraud, which can thus be used as currency to succeed.  If we were born into disadvantage and poverty, we can still opt to be a good, productive person, and build a good reputation to use as credit.

We need to insure ourselves against corrupt governments, against people who want to disappear us, against people who want to rip us off.  At the same time, our data is already being used against us.  If someone were to sue you, they could subpoena your electronic records.  They could interview your friends, get access to your credit card bills.  Companies are using your data already to establish your credit rating, your health insurance premiums, etc.  Your privacy has already been lost, right under your nose.

What most people mean when they are “private” is that they are not sharing their personal feelings, experiences, and time with people they don’t trust.  In other words, while their financial and professional rights have been raped whenever they got a job, applied for a loan, or charged to their Visa, they willingly withheld being open with the people around them.  And as someone who is about to be baptized as a Catholic, even Catholics can be pretty secretive (ask the Vatican) even though it is taught to us that being fully open with our communities and family and friends is the way to bring in the Holy Spirit.

In other words, we have been raised to bring war against those who are closest to us.  Our prisons are our own isolation from sharing and being with those around us.

Getting into the brighter side, about how sharing more of ourselves can lead to more creativity, more shared common information for us to re-mix with each other, to share our DNA and ideas to create better things, to find beauty.

So this is why I’m “into” social media.  This is why I like to share a lot.  I believe in it.  You may not, and that’s fine, but don’t hold it against me.  And, if you end up being right in the cynicism against sharing, then I hope you’re prepared to hack yourself off the internet, to have enough money to build your privatized secure world that protects you against governments, companies, and criminals.

I’m going to get back to work.  But I’m sorry if I’m tired of explaining things anymore.  I’ll see you on the other side.  I think things could be better, and I’m committed to working towards trying to improve them.


  1. “We might be remembered forever.”

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