Category Archives: publicness

The Transparent Society

It is difficult to pinpoint the precise moment that the privacy norm died, but historians tend to emphasize a few key developments. The global adoption of the Internet, World Wide Web, and smartphones were obviously the beginning. The rise of services that gathered user data to monetize through various strategies on the one hand, and systemic state surveillance such as was practiced early on in China on the other. A few open source projects which made it trivially easy for even the technologically unsavvy to get around all but the strictest security practices.

Whatever moment in these and other progressions it happened, the notion of “secret” gradually expired while no one was looking. The result was a radically transparent society unprecedented in human history.

The initial discontinuity clearly occurred a few short decades after the birth of the Web, and the result was a great deal of disruption and upheaval at first. It took less than a generation, however, for people to simply become used to it.

Philosophers and scholars before the great transformation believed that people would behave fundamentally differently when they were being observed, but it turned out that people can get used to just about anything. And when they do, they tend to just keep on falling into the same old patterns. So while a sociologist of the late 20th century might have thought that porn consumption—especially of the really weird stuff—would plummet if anyone anywhere could find out about it, it remained basically unchanged. For the most part, people didn’t want to know what porn other people were watching, and taboos developed against bringing it up even when they did find out and were disgusted by what they learned.

There was a lot of fear about what what happen under a mass surveillance state. But the private lives of the state officials who would pursue prosecution were also an open book, and any unsavory personal or organizational agendas were in plain view. As a result, in those countries where success in the public sector was highly sensitive to public perceptions, the transition was basically a wash. In police states such as China, tyrannical laws were already selectively enforced to begin with. The new transparency made it clear how large a swath of the population was dissatisfied, and how corrupt the ruling regime was. It also made it harder to stop insurgents from finding and doing harm to top officials, though it made it easier to find them after the fact.

In short, the result of an initial upsurge in violence and persecution was largely a shift in norms that kept social and political life in the status quo.

A few generations in, when history teachers explained to their students that their ancestors had clung fiercely to concepts of privacy and secrecy, they were baffled. How did any solve any crimes? What did the older generations think they had to hide? Of course, as with the young of any era, it was inconceivable to them that society could ever have functioned at all outside of the particular framework they grew up in. Even though they continued to be taught that crime rates and wars and censorship around the world had basically remained the same before and after the transition, few could bring themselves to believe it.

The preferred the story of progress, the story of how technology transformed the world for the better.

Stories about how the world keeps on turning, mostly indifferent to the things individuals find fascinating, are boring, and soon forgotten.

Publicness and the Modern Career

This week, I accepted a new job. It will be a big change for me–among other things, I will be leaving the DC area and moving to New York. I may talk about that in more detail some other time. For now, I’d like to focus on how a blog post I wrote three years ago and a recent connection on LinkedIn made it possible for me to get this job in the first place.

Writing

I love to write, and I always have. It is one of the few true constants across my entire life. These days, anyone with a love for writing should be putting their work online. If you are already going to be investing the time and energy to write something, you might as well put it where people might conceivably find it. At minimum, it makes it easier to share with friends and family who are geographically scattered. At best, you open yourself up for a lucky break.

I have been blogging since November of 2004, when I was 19 and my interests were primarily politics and philosophy. I had been writing online in one form or another for years before that, but it mostly involved arguing about religion or video games or whatever I happened to feel strongly about at the time in various forums. Blogging was different; it became my method of choice for thinking out ideas through writing.

The early stuff I wrote was variably juvenile or pretentious, or both, but the mere act of doing it helped me to get better over time. The more I did it, the more I found I enjoyed it, and the easier it came to me.

In late 2008 I started a new blog specifically for longer analytical pieces on technology and new media. I wanted a blog that I could point potential employers to without the risk that while they were there they might stumble into some dumbass thing I had written when I was 19. They would have to go to the extra effort of googling me to do that!

Medialets

Back in 2009, an app analytics company called Pinch Media released a slideshare presentation based on data they had on iPhone app usage. It went viral, briefly becoming the talk of the tech blogosphere, and even getting a nod from the Onion. I took issue with the way the angle tech blogosphere coverage was approaching it from, and also with how some of the data was presented in the slideshare itself.

So I wrote a critique on my blog, fully expecting that it would only be seen by the handful of friends and family who usually read my posts. Shortly after posting it, the analyst for Pinch Media jumped in with some salient remarks in the comments section, which was a fun surprise.

Then I was contacted by someone from a company called Medialets, which at the time was one of Pinch Media’s competitors in the mobile analytics space. Rana, one of their cofounders, asked if I would be open to talking on the phone.

We talked, and she floated the idea of maybe having me work with them on a project by project basis. It was definitely more interesting than the job I had at the time. But I did have a job, and grad school, and a girlfriend in DC, and family and friends in northern Virginia. I spent a lot of hours driving between all of them, with very little free time left afterwards. So I was interested, but I didn’t follow up, and they didn’t either. I followed Rana and Eric Litman, Medialets’ CEO, on Twitter. After a while, I noticed that Rana had left the company for other ventures, so I assumed I was unlikely to have any dealings with them in the future.

Then, a little over a month ago, Google’s Bradley Horowitz connected to me on LinkedIn for reasons that remain a mystery to me. But I figured he was probably connected to some interesting people, so I looked. I saw Eric, and remembered him from my previous encounter with his company, and thought–why not? So I connected with him.

In the time since my last interaction with Medialets, I had added an MA in economics and a job in online ad operations to my resume. It just so happened that they were looking for someone to work in ad operations, so Eric reached out to me about a job.

Living in Public

New media is not a panacea; it still takes experience and education to qualify for a job, and that isn’t going to change. But your ability to do a job is far from the only thing that determines whether or not you get it. To start with, your potential employer has to know you exist.

Jeff Jarvis has recently championed the benefits of living in public, and one of those benefits is definitely that it creates the opportunity to be discovered. If the kind of work you want to do involves skills that can be demonstrated online, you should be demonstrating them.

But there is more to what a person would be like as an employee than what skills they have. One of the benefits of the various social networks we’re on is that people can get a feel for our personalities over time. While this may not be a perfect indication of what we would be like to work with, I think it’s fair to assume that everyone prefers to work with people they like rather than people they don’t. If you have a blog that puts your skills and personality on display then you are creating the possibility that someone will grow to like you, someone who either has a job you are qualified for or knows someone that does.

Take Eli for example. His blog just oozes social science smarts. If you are looking for a young, brilliant economist, reading his blog should be enough to convince you that he’s your guy. Moreover, you really get a sense of what his interests are, as well as of his sense of humor. I had a class with him years ago, but I really came to know his personality afterwards, by talking to him on Twitter and reading his posts.

Jeff Jarvis thinks that we are in the midst of a moral panic about privacy concerns, and I tend to agree. The privacy conversation is an important one, and we need to have it, but we should be very careful not to undervalue what each of us can get from moving more of ourselves into the public.

On Being Public

When I read Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody, or Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants, I was confronted with some truly big think ideas that took me a few months to really digest and get my head around after I had finished them.

Reading Jeff Jarvis’ Public Parts, by contrast, felt more like continuing a conversation that had been going and would continue well after I finished the book. In part this is because I listen to This Week in Google every week, and watched as Jarvis formulated the idea for the book and gradually became chief publicness advocate on the show.

But I had also been having discussions on this subject on my own. When Google+ first launched on an invite-only basis, they were looking for all the feedback they could get. The whole concept behind circles was to give people maximum control over their privacy with the minimum possible effort, in response to concerns expressed about Facebook, not to mention Google itself. The debates that took place those first couple of weeks made me eager for Jarvis’ book to come out–so many people put so much stock on the importance of privacy, without taking into account the value of being public!

Jarvis has been practicing what he preaches for some time, talking openly about his prostate cancer and the unfortunate side effects of the treatment on his blog. One complaint that people have about this is that most of his readers subscribe to his blog to read his commentary on media, and don’t want to hear about his surgery-induced impotence. But Jarvis argues that he, personally, got value from being public, because he received a ton of feedback from people who had experience with what he was going through and were able to give him advice.

Morever, there is a social benefit to talking about such things in public–now, anyone who has prostate cancer can find Jarvis’ blog posts on the subject–as well as all the helpful comments on them–simply by searching on Google.

Jarvis doesn’t discount privacy, but he does think there is a dearth of publicness advocates relative to the big privacy advocacy industry that has cropped up. Since participating in those discussions on Google+, and reading his book, I have begun to look at things through the lens of the value of being public.

The recent Hyperbole and a Half, Adventures in Depression, is a perfect example. I have a lot of friends and family who have suffered through depression, but I haven’t lived it myself. The writer of H&H gave someone like me an insight into what it is like that I had never had. At the same time, the people I know who have experience with depression universally seemed glad that someone had so perfectly, and humorously, described what they have gone through.

For those of us who don’t command the kind of audiences that Hyperbole and a Half or Jeff Jarvis have, there is still plenty of reason to be public. You may not even realize who cares about the events in your life and is willing to make an effort to support and encourage you if you limit the people you share with. When my friend Kelly wrote this very brave and very honest post about what she’s been going through, she received some very wonderful feedback from an unexpected source, and it made her day.

This doesn’t mean that everything needs to be made public all the time. But it’s important to take the value of being public seriously, and to think hard about how you present yourself in public.

I created this site, under this domain, on a server I pay for, because as I was reading Jarvis’ book I started to rethink the way I was conducting my public life. I have no problem with my various social network profiles, and Blogger blogs, showing up when someone Googles me, but I wanted to have one site that I owned from beginning to end, under nothing but my own name. I don’t think everyone needs to do this, but I do think it’s something everyone should consider–and something schools should be informing students is an option.

So how could you benefit from being more public?