Friday, April 8, 2011

Secrets in the Social Network

Facebook and other social networks combine with micro-blogging sites like Twitter to create an online environment designed to encourage the immediate sharing of our lives.  The interface inclines one to post the momentary reality, to share the “wisdom of the herd.”  Such an environment carries certain cultural assumptions.  One of these, articulated at various times by such luminaries as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Eric Schmidt, is that privacy is, at best, moribund.  In the brave new digital world it is more acceptable to shatter secrecy, to discourage contemplative privacy - at least online if not in life, assuming for the moment a life beyond online.

I am bothered by that perspective.  It is often the unsophisticated or the intolerant who believe “there should be no secrets.”  The unsophisticated equate privacy with secrecy, and keeping secrets with lying.  It is a youthful error, and never a surprising one.  The assumption implies another naive notion; that one should answer inappropriate questions.  The idea of either discretion or silence vanishes.  After all, if discrete silence came again into vogue we would be forced to live without either Facebook or reality TV; Twitter would perish utterly.

Such a guileless view of the world is what provides the humor in the current Gieco commericial in which a rotunde Mary Lincoln inquires of the President if her dress makes her "backside look big." Honest Abe is unable to maintain a discrete silence, and Mary flounces off with feelings hurt, leaving the President, we assume, to a night on The First Couch. A lose/lose situation that is somehow valued because it was "honest", because the President refused to keep his perception "secret."

Intolerance is almost easier to understand.  The intolerant eschew secrets because if thoughts or actions are kept secret, then those holier-than-we are denied the pleasure of pointing out the errors of our ways and punishing us for them.  The “necessity” of their own secrets is often wrapped in a “special relationship” with a “higher power.” It is a convenient duality: My secrets are good, yours are bad.

Much of our ambivalence regarding secrets springs from the fact that there are secrets, and then, there are secrets. Some secrets are encased in bubblewrap and velvet.  They rest enshrined in memory, devotion and belief.  They are secret, not because they are wrong or evil, but rather because they are too precious to bear the crass scrutiny of the masses - they are moonflowers that bloom only when sheltered from the harsh light of the sun.

And then, some secrets are cancers.  These secret thoughts, ideas and behaviors eat away at people’s lives.  They are born most often from hate and ignorance, of others or of ourselves. Such secrets rob our lives of sunshine, casting all into the shadow they inhabit.  The challenge, of course, is telling which is which.

Most often we learn the difference over time.  You see, most of our secrets look the same when they are babies. It is only as they mature and begin to influence our lives that we learn their true character, discovering which should be cherished and which must be excised.  So, confusion is a common bloom in our youthful secret gardens.  At first blush, love and obsession look much the same.  Bravery and bravado are often mistaken for one another.  Acquiescence may be taken for agreement.  Hopefully, as we grow older, we prune our cancerous secrets. We leave them behind, molted with the rejected alternative selves of our intolerant youth.  Equally desirous is a growing ability to shield the softer secrets of our better selves, allowing us to aid without fanfare, to succor without glory.

Given what I feel is the complexity of the issue, I am uneasy regarding the animosity with which the architects of social media appear to view privacy, with their tendency to conflate privacy with secrecy. How does one repair the damage done when those same architects, by implementing what seems like a “cool feature,” reveal private relationships in public spaces?  Wikileaks seems content to serve as judge and jury regarding the secrets they expose.  I wonder if Julian Assange's certainty is warranted?  How does one apologize, how does one "make it right" if the "cancerous secret" you have just exposed to the world is, on closer inspection, a secret more worthy of the protection of bubblewrap and velvet?

As with many of the life’s ambiguities, the notion of “keeping a secret” most likely has no inherent morality.  Secrets are now, and have always been, employed for both good and ill.  Still, I would prefer that I, and not my software, make that decision.