Internet Privacy and Social Organizing

Having read the ZIS COETAIL offerings for this week and then Dr. Cornel West’s Twitter feed, the contrast between fears of sharing information online and the power of social movements organized through social media stands starkly apparent. Dr. West was arrested at the Occupy Wall Street protest with 19 others and is publicly sharing the information (@CornelWest) because this information has power. When compared to the advertising scare piece about the dangers of posting underwear pictures online, Dr. West’s use of technology speaks loudly about the potential of sharing. Others like @Newyorkist are reporting events and curating content from others in real time. Yes, people are noticing. No, they aren’t stalking the protestors or asking about their underwear. The Guardian has a section devoted to the Occupy Wall Street movement. John Stewart is taking on media coverage of the protests in a manner informed no doubt by information garnered from social media because he seems to actually know what is going on, which would be next to impossible for someone following only the mainstream news narrative. The fears explicit in the ad linked above are planted in reality – there is a loss of privacy in the digital age. However, we shouldn’t fear how powerless we are as a result; we should marvel at how powerful we may become as a result.

The second narrative has promise and power for students, as well. Howard Gardner perhaps overstates his case about the end of didactic roles for teachers, but his emphasis on teachers coaching ethics in digital contexts is spot on. Once students begin to understand the power of public discourse through social media, I think they’ll be turned on by the ethical power of action. I also follow Jeff Jarvis, author, new media columnist at The Guardian, and professor at City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism (@jeffjarvis) on Twitter, and am looking forward to reading his new book, Public Parts. Jarvis, as he wrote on his blog, argues

that in our current privacy mania we are not talking enough about the value of publicness. If we default to private, we risk losing the value of the connections the internet brings: meeting people, collaborating with them, gathering the wisdom of our crowd, and holding the powerful to public account. Yes, I believe we have a right and need to protect our privacy — to control our information and identities — but I also want the conversation and our decisions to include consideration of the value of sharing and linking. I also want to protect what’s public as a public good; that includes our internet.

Plenty of other thinkers, like Clay Shirky (and in video), were making this point before the Arab Spring made it for them. It’s not all bad.

Of course, students need to have the positive models that Gardner speaks about showing them that online spaces like Facebook and Tumblr are not private rooms, but public squares. We should model the best possible uses of these squares. This is a time of change – a photo taken of you might have me in the background, and that photo might wind up online, public, and out of my control. But I am reminded of a photo taken of me in profile and of a good friend who is smiling radiant and gorgeous on a sunny Sunday afternoon right into the camera of a stranger. Years later, she was stopped on the sidewalk in New York by another woman who was shocked, said “Oh my God! It’s you!” She took my friend’s address and mailed her the photo that she had taken (on film. Remember film?), a photo she had always enjoyed having tacked to a corkboard in her house. My friend mailed the photo to me in Kyrgyzstan.

Privacy is an illusion in analog, too, and the public nature of society is often as nice, or as powerful, as it is menacing.

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