Freewheeling about being Private in Public

As the name of this blog suggests, I was born and brought up in Calcutta. I have no way of knowing for sure, but it seems reasonable for me to assume that my core thoughts about privacy were formed during the 23 years I lived there.

It’s a crowded city. A lot of middle-class people live “vertically”, in highrise apartments. My family were no different; while the number of people at home fluctuated between 7 and 12, the floor area remained at the 1500 sq. ft. mark. So you could say we were densely packed at home.

The school I went to may have been thought of as elitist, but it was no different from many others when you look at the numbers. Around 40 students per class, 4 classes per year, 1500 students in the school. Normal. Dense.

Most people I knew used public transport, which was plentiful. And dense.

Amidst all this denseness, the sense of community was very high. And it was normal for things to be communally owned. Particularly at home, ownership was something associated with a family and not a person.

This sense of community pervaded everything we did. We tended to play together, study together, work together, laugh together, cry together. Memories of home, of school, of college, all revolved around spending time with others. And eating.

Even the food we ate was communal; easily stretched to accommodate more people. The adda was really a physical blogosphere.

No surprise then that our identities were also communal; who we were quite quickly became a function of family and neighbourhood and occupation and employment. [In this particular case, when one looks at naming conventions, there was no real difference between east and west. Maybe the difference came with affluence and with disruption of the social fabric, as single-person dwellings and single-parent families became more common in the west].

Communal ownership. Communal identities. Communal rites of passage and communal meeting places. All in an environment where everything was densely packed: the home, the school, the neighbourhood, the workplace, public transportation, the city itself.

Against this backdrop, you can imagine how intriguing I found concepts of privacy when I turned up in the UK. Of course we had privacy in India, but not the twitching-net-curtains variety. Much of our privacy was what we made of it, and it was out in the open. There was nowhere else.

So maybe it’s an environment thing, maybe it’s a culture thing. If that’s the case, then the results of a recent Pew Internet study, entitled Digital Footprints, make interesting reading. I quote from the summary (my emphasis):

Internet users are becoming more aware of their digital footprint; 47% have searched for information about themselves online, up from just 22% five years ago. However, few monitor their online presence with great regularity. Just 3% of self-searchers report that they make a regular habit of it and 74% have checked up on their digital footprints only once or twice.

Indeed, most internet users are not concerned about the amount of information available about them online, and most do not take steps to limit that information. Fully 60% of internet users say they are not worried about how much information is available about them online. Similarly, the majority of online adults (61%) do not feel compelled to limit the amount of information that can be found about them online.

Maybe things are changing; that’s what I am trying to work on.

Now there are a hundred experts out there working on this, so why would I be arrogant enough to think I can do better? Don’t worry, I’m not. I try my best to read what they have to say, and to discuss it with as many of the experts as I can meet. Those active in the Identity space tend to be accessible and gregarious, which is a good thing.

The difference between what the experts are doing and what I am doing is one of perspective. I am asking myself the question “what happens if I take my beliefs on abundance and scarcity and overlay that on public and private, if I start thinking that abundant equals public and scarce equals private?”

That’s the question that keeps me awake when I want to be kept awake. I’m too old to be kept awake any other way, I can fall asleep at the drop of a hat. And often do.

Views? Comments?

7 thoughts on “Freewheeling about being Private in Public”

  1. There was a time when I was a little more careful about the information about me online, especially after a very odd experience with a jealous hacker (I’ll let you imagine what you will, but it put me off revealing anything about myself online for a while after that), but now if anything I try to enhance my online profile by leaving breadcrumbs, like the link to my blog in this comment.

    I think people will come to some sort of equilibrium where they share the same sort of information with their friends and family as they share on the web, I mean you’re not going to give away your credit card details to either group on purpose.

    Of course on the other hand, anonymity is easily achieved online and some will embrace that to conceal their identity when perhaps they want to discuss something private, but in the open. Something I’ve touched on previously here:


  2. I’d like to throw in a slightly different perspective into the mix. As someone who has spent over a decade in some form of public service (elected local councillor in England, chair of a £m+ charity), I have had the experience of not being able to be “private” in any sense. The dividing line between being accessible and accountable to the public and being “owned” by the public is a very thin one. There are clearly levels of expectation around behaviour, but this has been amplified beyond reasonableness by a media feeding a public insatiable for controversy and gossip.

    But do we really want saints as our leaders or even employees? Do we really need to scan youtube to rule out evidence of youthful exuberance before considering employing someone?

    I am passionate about the concept of community and feel privileged to be sought by my own community to assist and support them. Being accessible and available via new media means my contribution can grow. This requires me to be open and accessible online as well as via traditional methods.

    I think a drive towards anonymity and away from an honest expression of opinions allows the visions and dreams that can be exposed and expounded using new emergent media, to slip sadly through our grasp.

  3. I largely agree with Darren and Robbie.
    Maybe it’s a bit paranoid, but I simply wouldn’t feel comfortable with anyone being able to track my every move, all with a simple Google query. That’s why I rarely use my full name or personal e-mail address when interacting on the web (like right here).

    The downside: This rigid separation of real-world and online online identity makes it difficult to present achievements online to a potential employer or client, which seems to become more and more important (in a positive sense, not just in the negative “drunk pics on Facebook” way described by Darren).

  4. For Darren it is anonymity that is lost – the ability to have your data easily correlated (e.g. by Google) is the first casuality of fame. Wheras I could reasonable walk down the centre of Stockholm (where I don’t live or work) naked with a reasonable chance that it will never be connected to me.

    Its very much like throwing keys into the street. What use are they to anyone? Well, if I can use a CC camera to catch the person in the act, then somehow correlate that picture to their address – then maybe I can ransack their place.

    But that last step is the magic crossover where one online datum connects to another. Its not just about private and public.

  5. The first thing I want to know is what data about me is out there, and I need tools to understand that and to be able to correct or at least challenge it.

    The second thing I need is to be sure who has access to it.

    Privacy fears come from these two areas. When you don’t know what’s out there then you don’t know how it can be used. When you don’t know who has the data then you don’t know what they can do with it.

    Data that is easily accessible by all holds no fear, it is the asymmetric data that is dangerous.

    Private data is by definition asymmetric.

Let me know what you think

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