Help, I’m Telling Strangers My Secrets
We complain about things like Facebook and Twitter impinging on our privacy, but I think that’s absurd because we are the ones providing details about our lives (including our relationship status, down to the minute of hook-up and break-up) on the web and showing them off to friends and “friends” and strangers.
If we don’t want someone to come inside our house, we can lock the door. Likewise, if we don’t want the information that we are foot fetishists to be known and used against us, we can make a conscious decision to not put it on our profiles. It’s as simple as that, especially since the Great and Almighty Corporation of Facebook can’t jump out of our screens and learn what we did last weekend with a bong and eight shots of tequila, so long as we don’t tell them. On the other hand, any trespasser or hooligan can break through our windows and get inside our homes, so really they aren’t that bad in comparison.
We are the exhibitors of our personal information, the ones typing it all up. We are the invaders of our own privacy. We can’t pretend not to know this because it’s so obvious.
I think we feel inclined to blame Facebook for everything, because of the cognitive dissonance (psychological tension caused by one’s own contradicting attitude and behaviour) that occurs when we use tools like Facebook or Twitter. We are torn between our powerful exhibitionistic urges and our ideological appreciation of privacy — and this confuses and makes us feel uncomfortable.
Take me, for example. If someone asked me, “do you value your privacy?” I’d say I do, absolutely. The public has no business in what I am doing with myself and I wholeheartedly believe that.
But I am obviously an exhibitionist. I am easily tempted to reveal intimate facts about myself to the public. That’s why I blog it, Twitter it, Facebook it, and Tumblr it. I discuss, elaborate, analyze, narrate, and illustrate how my day went, all in the extreme public sphere of the Internet. Even offline, I make friends and tell them more than I should. I beg them to be involved in my private life.
In fact, upon further introspection, my exhibitionism seems to run even deeper. Although in my sane mind I think stalking is incredibly creepy, I find with a shudder that secretly and unconsciously I want people to be interested in me enough to stalk me. I want people to care about the mundane things I do and monitor my every move. I want strangers to recognize me and have forum discussions about my thoughts, beliefs, and actions. It sometimes gives me exquisite chills to receive comments on my blog entry or a status update on one of my many social networking sites.
When that happens, I cannot believe how much of a freak and hypocrite I am.
For someone who says she values her privacy, I sure spend a lot of my time exposing myself. I whine about people disrespecting my personal space, but I am the one that doesn’t give a damn about it, telling everyone about her darkest secrets and oral hygiene.
And it really makes me want to blame Facebook and Twitter and blog and Tumblr (that I signed up for out of my own free will) that make it that easy for me to do so. I want to say, “damn you, Internet! You are making me invade my privacy in a really user-friendly and aesthetically pleasing way!”
Maybe our culture’s obsession with fame has turned me into this off-putting attention whore. Damn you, western civilization! But of course I don’t think it is a simple as that. We can’t just blame the generalized “our culture” and become free of personal blame for being what we are.
Instead, I think we should gather the courage to ask the question: Why do we come up with increasingly better ways to expose ourselves (i.e. Facebook, then Twitter) all the while complaining about our personal space being spat on? Why do we want everyone to know that our teeth hurt today and that we should really go see a dentist?
I want to argue here that it is because our entire worldview is built around the idea that openness and communication is awesome, that open door policies are a good and healthy thing (even if it opens doors to the riff-raffs too), that knowing is the first step to understanding and empathy (even if too much information is annoying), and that truth is infinitely productive (even at its most destructive). And I think we are right to believe these things.
Privacy is only offered behind locked doors. But when no one is free to come inside your personal sphere – sticking their nose in matters of your thoughts, attitudes, and actions – no real dialogue can occur. No dialogue means no movement, no change, no solutions and no real understanding of others or even ourselves. Dialogue and social interaction is crucial for individual growth and a healthy community. Don’t trust anyone who tells you otherwise because they are either a coward or your enemy.
I think because many of us understand this fact, consciously or unconsciously, we are quickly seduced by the idea of unlocking the door. And it makes perfect sense to bust it open and invite people in, because what kind of life is it to live it by ourselves? Although we shouldn’t be forced to reveal secrets we do not want to reveal (unless of course the secret in question is the location of the bomb or hostages or victims of a kidnap or bodies of the murdered victims), we might eagerly choose to for the breath of fresh air. On a purely experiential level, when we share what’s on our minds, it feels good – and of course there are effective therapies built around this fact.
So we undress and reveal ourselves! Watch me! Please watch me!
And it’s exhilarating to be naked and watched. But then we feel embarrassed and guilty about our nakedness, because we stigmatize exhibitionistic behavior as imprudent and inappropriate. So when someone (sometimes ourselves) point out this inner paradox, we make a scapegoat out of Facebook and Twitter. Damn you, you useful tools with which we indulge our twisted appetite for exposure!
But I would like to take this opportunity to defend these effective hammers against the walls between us. Privacy is important, but so is openness. Self-indulgent and excessive exhibitionism is annoying, but we can just say “I don’t care” or “Too much information” to that and move on. In the form of considerate openness (not in-your-face aggressive revelations), however, I think self-exposure should be encouraged. I think twittering can be wonderfully healthy.
(Published in the first edition of Konekt Magazine, Fall 2009)
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