Courtesy of Alan Jacobs , I see some academics are starting to grapple with the issue. But how successfully? Danah Boyd tackles Google Buzz:

“Nothing that the Buzz team did was technologically wrong,” Ms. Boyd said. “Yet the service resulted in complete disaster.”

Google got into trouble, she said, by linking something that people associate with being inherently private — their e-mail accounts — with something that is very public — status updates on a social network. The result was “a series of social disruptions,” Ms. Boyd said.

The blunder, she said, reflected a broader muddying of the line between what is private and public online. The idea that information exists in a binary world — public or private — no longer applies, she said.

“Google assumed people wanted different parts of their contacts converging and collapsing,” she said. “But just because people put different parts of their lives online doesn’t mean they want them in one place.”

More troubling, she said, is what Google’s flub may portend for the future.

“I can’t help noticing that more and more technology companies are exposing people’s information publicly and then backpedaling a few weeks out,” she said.

Ms. Boyd pointed to the recent changes in Facebook ’s privacy policy that made more of its members’ information public by default. “Just because something is publicly accessible doesn’t mean people want it to be publicized,” she said.

The results could be harmful and damaging if they were to expose people’s information in ways they were not expecting, she said, and these issues are only likely to get more convoluted in the future.

“Neither privacy nor publicity is dead, but technology will continue to make a mess of both,” she said.


Let’s be clear about the reason we are experiencing this convolution the way that we are: leading tech companies have a colossal financial interest in making people convolute public and private. Any interest in persuading people that it’s a good idea to deconstruct the public/private divide in their personal lives — or, really, to let them be deconstructed — is ancillary at best to that larger financial interest, and at worst antagonistic.

Excuses like those Boyd’s ominous remark seems to portend — “nothing we did was technologically wrong” — are easy enough of targets to aim at and hit. And I’m not one to pretend that a few big corporations are singlehandedly responsible for taking our precious public/private distinction and shattering it at the feet of a golden idol. The fact is, we democratic individuals have come to recognize that cultivating, maintaining, managing, and policing liberalism’s essential public/private distinction is a lot more and harder work than we might be willing to allocate our precious resources (time, energy) toward. What it requires in particular — at the porous frontier between what’s personal and what’s not — is, I think, a rather robust, regular, and adult form of citizen politics.

Unfortunately, we have a longing to escape from that sort of politics, even at the cost of a robust, regular, and paternalist form of state-administered law. The journey there, as I see it, is characterized by the awkward-turtle sort of line-drawing generated by decisions like Planned Parenthood v. Casey and Lawrence v. Texas — where concepts of publicity and privacy become increasingly meaningless under the pressure of putting the stamp of authoritative law upon a much different divide — between what I’ve called official and unofficial life.

The divide between official and unofficial puts some private and some public things in one basket, and others in another. Regardless of what a particular American citizen thinks about homosexuality, abortion, or exes lingering in electronic address books, this is a significant shift in our social and political order, and it ought to attract more attention, as such, than it has. The implications of a shift toward official/unofficial life, and away from public/private life, are profound. And they throw into stark relief, I think, some of the ways in which a more progressive life may quickly become less and less liberal.

I would point out that the essentially erotic interest Americans seem to have in abandoning the public/private distinction is a lot different from the essentially monetary interest some American corporations have in getting as many of us to do that as possible. Neither our changing mores nor our developing technology are making a mess of public and private so much as moving to replace them with new categories that leave the public/private distinction looking quaint, arbitrary, and incoherent. The trouble is that the Googles and Facebooks of the world are pushing in this direction without a clear enough understanding of how the ‘progressive’ aspect of our mores represents a contingent vanguard and not a historically destined popular movement.

Yet at the same time, our innovative geeks seem genuinely blindsided by the severity of the residual relationship problems that they have caused to come back and haunt Americans uncomfortably and improvisationally negotiating the space between disrupted public and private realms. This emotional tone-deafness seems to me all too typical of geekdom, a world in which the self-evident inherent goodness of new features blinds us to the disruptions they inflict on the human realities they depend on. As the least socially awkward among us have always already known, the ultimate stomping ground for those seeking the experience of new features is society itself, with its potential of endless relational couplings and decouplings. Historically, those of us looking to max out those kinds of experiences have been the bugs, not the features, of liberal society. Tech companies geeking out on the profitable possibilities of ever-more-social transactions, official and unofficial, fail to realize that they are working to crash liberal society. And because of this, backlash against their efforts to do so are met with an awkwardness and confusion almost as poignant as those of their customers who have suddenly been plunged back into relationships they thought had been safely quarantined, online no less than off, in the past.

UPDATE: For a sane debate among tech-education enthusiasts that might go at least one step outside the rut, see here (h/t PEG).

UPDATE 2: And for some further thoughts at a hopefully not too vertigo-inducing level of abstraction, see here .

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