We Live in Public

This past week, Facebook users had another one of their patented uprisings, this time crying foul over the purportedly confounding privacy settings that make it hard for people to switch away from the "everyone sees everything" default settings. Out of anger about the great "invasion of privacy" phantom, thousands of users have vowed to delete their Facebook accounts in protest.

It was enough to force Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to call a press conference, apologize, and institute changes such as requiring only minimal information to be visible when people search for others (name, profile picture, and gender). Facebook had earlier required users to make more of their information public.

But who are we kidding? Why would anyone sign up for Facebook if they were worried about privacy? Isn't the whole point of Facebook to put yourself out to the world via status updates, photos, and "likes"? I question whether the 10 million people who joined Facebook in April (and the 500 million worldwide who use the site) are in any way concerned about "privacy" at all.

Talk of privacy is a joke and an absurdity when people are getting up each morning to voraciously begin a day of tweets, or to post a thought about the weather on Facebook, or to blog about what they did over the weekend (or to blog about most anything, for that matter). If you want privacy, quit putting anything of yourself on the Internet! The Internet is inescapably, necessarily, and wonderfully public. It is open, free, limitless. But we can't have our cake and eat it too.

I think a lot of times the privacy "issue" is really just a scapegoat/smokescreen that covers up for our own frightful inclinations toward exhibitionism. We decry Facebook's Orwellian, oppressive invasion of privacy because our own willingness to daily cede ourselves to the public performances of Internet life scare us a little bit. We paint the whole "we live in public" thing as a travesty, a lamentable byproduct of the digital age. But all along we roll with it, urge it on, and expand its possibility with every passing post, tweet, or status update.

In the 2008 documentary film, We Live in Public, filmmaker Ondi Timoner examines the life and work of Internet pioneer/visionary/prophet Josh Harris. The film shows his 1999 project “Quiet: We Live in Public," which was a NYC art installation piece that invited 100 volunteers to live in an underground bunker (Japanese pod hotel-style, or concentration camp-style, depending on how you look at it) and have every second of their lives taped for a month. A cultural descendant of Bentham's Panopticon, Warhol's Factory, Orwell's 1984, and MTV's The Real World, Harris' project was painstakingly crafted to encourage over-the-top exhibitionism that would inevitably lead to fights, chaos, and "I can never be alone!" existential breakdown. It was trying to make some sort of point about how the Internet will probably end up like this--everyone living publicly for everyone else--and that this could make us all lose our minds.

Later in the film, we see Harris' next big "art project/exploration of privacy." He wires his own house with tons of surveillance cameras, in the bedroom, the bathroom, the toilets, etc. He and his girlfriend go about their life together as a "normal couple," but broadcast every moment of it live on the Internet, while also chatting with their growing fan community watching their every move. Naturally, the experience takes its toll on their relationship. Their Internet fanbase becomes the third person in their relationship, and the most important one. After they have a fight on camera, they rush to their respective computers to see what the audience is saying about it. "Make him sleep on the sofa!" seems to be the consensus, so that's what she does. It's life lived through social networking; It's community storytelling. Harris and his girlfriend don't last, of course, but they got some great Internet celebrity out of the arrangement.

We Live in Public is an insightful but ridiculous film. It correctly theorizes that the Internet is pushing culture in the direction of vast openness and away from old notions of privacy. But, ridiculously, it assumes this will be some sort of jarring, fascist, unwelcome surprise, or that we won't all gleefully collude in the erosion of privacy. We will, and we are.

Half a billion people are on Facebook. And they are there for reasons that have much more to do with unabashed exhibitionism than with the preservation of interior, personal, and private existence.