“Publicacy”? How About “Publicity”?

by on January 28, 2009 · 8 comments

Scott Cleland is nothing if not interesting. And I was interested by a post he has up this morning: The Growing Privacy-Publicacy Fault-line – The Tension Underneath World Data Privacy Day.

Today is World Data Privacy Day. You can tell by the demonstrations and fireworks displays in capitals around the world. (ahem)

I’ll be speaking at a Dialogue on Diversity Internet privacy briefing on Capitol Hill this afternoon, in case you’re interested and have time.

But Scott’s point – privacy is in tension with the “publicacy” ethos of the Web 2.0 world – I think it’s a very interesting point.

My differences with him are two.

The first is semantic: I think the word he should use is “publicity.” It has the benefit of already being a word – and it’s capable of being pronounced as well!

The second, and more important, is where the ethos comes from: It’s a demand of people – not the Web 2.0 set, but all people.

Privacy and publicity are two sides of the same personal-information coin. People want some information to be kept private – we know that. But they have at least equal or greater demands to make information public – to give it publicity. This is why restaurants and bars are open, curtainless rooms. It’s why email, blogs, Flickr, Facebook and other social networking sites are popular.

The reason why privacy is sought-after and its twin “publicity” is ignored, is because publicity is the default. The laws of physics mean that information about you is automatically displayed when you walk on the street. Photons of light bounce off your body and convey personal information to the photo-receptors (or “eyes”) of people around you.

The ‘physical’ laws of the Internet are similar. You have to ‘publicize’ your IP address to have any contact with another on the Internet. You have to publicize lots of identity, biographical, and other personal information to have any meaningful contact with others on the Internet.

But imagine a world where privacy was the default and information did not naturally travel to others. People would demand publicity. Poeple would demand to be seen and remembered, to have details about their lives recounted by others.

Publicity is not an incursion on social norms being perpetrated by Google and other Web 2.0 types. Web 2.0ish things are a response to the broad implicit demand for publicity. Oh, it’s implicit to the point of contradictory: People say they want privacy even as their actions betray their longing for publicity.

The trick is for people to figure out how to give themselves publicity in the things they want known, and to maintain privacy in the things they don’t. That’s a problem that will most likely be solved by the passage of a few generations, when the technologies that are new today are familiar, and when people have reset their personal information practices and their expectations.

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