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?

  • http://elidourado.com/ Eli Dourado

    I think publicness is a public good. Most people try to publicize their successes and cover up their failures, inadequacies, and fears as a means of status-seeking. If you scroll through your Facebook news feed, you will see a lot of “happy” and “cool” people, because those are the adjectives that most of us want to project. It can be hard to remember that those people have experienced and perhaps *are experiencing* failures, inadequacies, and fears also, in spite of their cool veneer. It would be great if there were a stronger norm of publicness; people would feel less isolated and inadequate, and more empowered. Alas, like most public goods, I think this one has little chance of being produced on a voluntary basis.

    • http://adamgurri.com AdamGurri

      I’m not sure I entirely agree. I think that there are definitely benefits that are external to the person being public–the theoretical prostate cancer patient who finds Jeff Jarvis’ post–but there are also benefits that are internalized, as well. As I said, we often don’t know who we’re going to hear from–after writing this post, someone I hadn’t talked to in a while messaged me on Google Talk to tell me she had enjoyed the post, and we ended up catching up.

      Precisely because the feedback to a fairly honest post about our problems is likely to solicit feedback that makes us feel less isolated and more empowered, people are likely to feel encouraged to do it, to some degree. Of course, there’s a flipside to the status game you describe–on top of those who want to appear happy and cool, are also those people who want to try and make others feel sorry for them and fish for compliments by insulting themselves. I was part of a group of friends in High School who were active on LiveJournal, and that was like, 98% of the posts.

      I also think in general we seem to be moving to be a lot more public by default, through things like Twitter and through various location services.

      • http://elidourado.com/ Eli Dourado

        Fair points. I didn’t mean to suggest that *no* publicness will be produced voluntarily, only that it is likely to be undersupplied no matter what.

        • http://adamgurri.com AdamGurri

          Certain activities will be under-publicized(?), for sure.

          It’s interesting to see companies like FourSquare try to entice more people into publicness by introducing game mechanics; I’m sure there’ll be more of that coming down the road as well.