Living Out Loud -- Should We All Be More "Open?": Privacy, the Self and Human Relationships (Part 3 of 7)

The ubiquity of digital gadgets and sensors, the pervasiveness of networks and the benefits of sharing very personal information through social media have led some to argue that privacy as a social norm is changing and becoming an outmoded concept. In a seven-part series Don Tapscott questions this view arguing that we each need a personal privacy strategy. This post is Part Three of that series. For previous articles go here.

Privacy is nothing if not the freedom to be let alone, to experiment and to make mistakes, to forget and to start anew, to act according to conscience, and to be free from the oppressive scrutiny and opinions of others. It may seem an odd notion today, but initially the Internet was a favorite refuge for many seeking privacy. This idea was best captured in a famous 1993 New Yorker cartoon, featuring two dogs sitting in front of a computer, with one saying to the other: "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog." People were assured of anonymity if that is what they desired. A teenager questioning his sexual orientation could visit gay-friendly sites that would offer helpful information and answer questions without him having to reveal his identity.

This is no longer guaranteed to be the case. Companies such as Google and Facebook closely monitor which websites a person visits so that they can serve up online ads that closely correspond to that person's interests. Google also scans the content of email sent using its Gmail service, again for the purpose of serving up more relevant ads.

Even though the human condition requires connection, we also need to feel confident that we can be alone and unwatched when we want to be, says privacy advocate Ann Cavoukian: "We are social animals who seek contact with each other, and we benefit from sharing information appropriately. But we also seek moments of solitude, intimacy, quiet, reserve and private reflection. These interests have co-existed for centuries and must continue to do so, for the human condition requires both."

The tension between these needs is a subject of much discussion among psychologists and psychiatrists, described well in Masud R. Khan's collections of essay entitled The Privacy of the Self. The book discusses our need for living in a community with others with our wish and need to preserve our unique individual selves.

True, we form ourselves in response to each other. But if we are constantly interacting, being scrutinized and revealing everything is there not a danger of losing track of where you end and other people begin? Which is why most developmental psychologists argue that personal secrecy is a crucial part of human development.

During adolescence, the period where "the self" begins to gel, there is a critical need to be able to start again, to redefine your self. But in order to refashion oneself, and embark on a new self definition it's necessary to cut loose from the past. This was always hard enough to do when a handful of people had a clear concept of who you "are." It becomes infinitely more difficult to do this when your more personal feelings, photos and other private data have been circulated to the world.

Privacy is also important to building strong relationships. Many people have worried that social media extends the number of weak ties that we all have, at the expense of strong ties. This is a complicated topic, because all ties in society that are strong begin as weak ties. In theory if we can expand the number of weak ties this should expand the pool from which strong ties can be formed. However true intimacy involves the symmetrical sharing of very personal information. We share secrets with close friends, loved ones and with those we might come to love.

So what happens when we begin sharing our secrets with everyone? Could this not degrade the value of truly personal information in building intimate relationships? Part of being intimate is the revealing of secrets, and being with that person who knows things that others do not.

The term "oversharing" has become a popular cultural meme referring to the act or practice of sharing too much information, or TMI, with people who have no need, or who not necessarily prepared or qualified to receive it. Telling a co-worker you went to the doctor is pertinent information. Telling them that you were having your hemorrhoids treated is probably oversharing.

The term is pejorative. If you overshare it can hurt your relationships with others, as much as being rude can.

"Some oversharing is the result of a poorly developed social filter or shut up button" says The WiseGeek blog. "Different people may have different ideas over what constitutes oversharing or TMI, so they may not realize they are making others feel uncomfortable. Once the oversharing line has been crossed, it is often difficult to erase those images from others' minds."

Jeff Jarvis in the book Public Parts points out "Oversharing is in the mind of the beholder." True enough, kind of like the smell of a fart is in the nose of the smeller.

Because of the digital revolution we each need to develop better filers, screens and BS detectors to sort through the information blizzard of daily life. But does this simple truth absolve us from having any sense of proprietary and responsibility for the effects of what we communicate to others?

In a simpler time such restraint in social life was called manners. Manners are the largely unwritten, underlying ethical codes in society about how we should interact with each other. They have a deep function -- to help ensure civility, consideration of others and in some ways civilization itself. Unlike the formal legal system, the punishment of bad manners is social disapproval. Rude people can suffer reputational damage.

Similarly, oversharing can cause reputational damage and hurt relationships. "What's wrong with that blabbermouth?" "That person is always spilling their guts." "Why on earth does she think I'd have the slightest interest in that?" "Remind me not to tell him any anything confidential." "I'm afraid he's just an open book." "She doesn't know how to keep a secret." "Whatever happened to discretion?"

Of course manners change. In the past it would be inappropriate to meet someone without a letter of introduction. But as the LinkedIn referral system shows, some manners encode deeply held norms about human behavior and protocol. The not only help us be civil but productive.

Further, when we share information we need to be considerate of the interest or related parties. Many young people have I've talked to have a rule about parties -- no tagging of photos without my permission. Plan on publishing your personal genome? You might want to discuss with your children first, as you're essentially communicating very personal information about them.

Oversharing can also undermine trust. Trust is, in part, the expectation that another party will be considerate of your interests. In many circumstances oversharing of information is inconsiderate. Increasingly we hope those we trust share information that is pertinent -- that helps us if we receive it.

Personal reputation management is a new challenge of the digital age. Irving Goffman's seminal 1959 text "The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life" needs an update. Goffman used the metaphor of the theatre to portray the importance of human -- namely, social -- action. An actor performs on a setting which is constructed of a stage and a backstage. The props at either setting direct his action. He is being watched by an audience, but at the same time he is an audience for his viewers' play. Actors strive to be coherent and adjust to the different settings offered them mainly through interaction with other actors all who are attempting to perform in a way that reflects well upon themselves.

When Goffman was making his observations in the last 1950s, the stage upon which we presented ourselves to others was pretty limited, and it was a physical place, involving face to face contact. Today our tweets, Facebook updates, emails, texts, photos, even the places we visit all become public. The number of actors on the stage and audience has grown exponentially.

How does this change the challenges of being viewed well by others? Surely if we are to present ourselves well in everyday life, build strong relationships and a solid reputation, we need to be discreet and respectful of the beholder's need to know information about us.

The fate of the twitter "over-sharer" is instructive. Flood the world with a river of information that is not pertinent and you'll lose followers. More dire consequences can result. As an extreme case in point: would you advise your teenage daughter to share information about her STD?

Next up: "Real Dangers of Thoughtless Sharing"

Don Tapscott is the author of 14 books about technology in business and society, most recently with Anthony D. Williams "Macrowikinomics." He discusses these ideas on twitter @dtapscott