Gabriel García Márquez once wrote, "Everyone has three lives: a public life, a private life, and a secret life," a line that seems to resonate with how we live our lives today, and perhaps how we have lived since the start of human society.
In everyday speech, we have terms that relate to keeping information private or secret. We all have an intuitive sense for privacy and secrecy, and they are caught up in our sense of self, and our notions of intimacy.
Privacy concerns are constantly in the headlines, like today's NY Times piece about the possible use of 'full body scanners' to peer beneath our clothes as a response to the Abdulmutallab bomb attempt. There is a potentially irresolvable gap between the US Government's desire to increase security and our natural reluctance to have strangers see beneath our clothes.
There is a fundamentally Western perception of rights of privacy -- the right to seclude oneself -- as in the privacy of one's home -- and to conceal information from other people and the state. This includes the right to selectively decide what to reveal about oneself. The notion of what sorts of information may be kept private differs widely across cultures, and while some governments have established laws ensuring privacy rights, many do not. And other laws -- like tax laws -- explicitly require access to information that individuals might otherwise want to keep private.
Our ideas of privacy are not universal, and can't be translated well into languages where cultural norms vary greatly. For example, physical modesty varies greatly across cultures, ranging from nearly naked models on catwalks or the average person on a Miami beach, to women in Islamic countries covering their body, hair, arms, legs, and even the face. But even within a country like the US, bodily modesty varies enormously.
We find similar variability in people's notions of privacy online. Some people are the web equivalent of nudists: they live very open lives on the web, revealing the intimate details of their relationships, what they think of friends and co-workers, their interactions with family and authorities. But, as in the Márquez quote, even these apparently wide open web denizens may keep some things private, or secret.
Secrecy carries connotations beyond those linked to privacy. Secrets are often shared, and as such are social objects that link those sharing the secrets together, and excluding others. Secrecy also may imply shame, or the likelihood of repercussions if the secret is revealed. This dimension of secrecy does overlap with some of the deeper motivations for personal privacy. Lastly, corporations and governments have and keep secrets, like the Coca Cola formula or cell phone recordings of prisoners at Guantanamo. And of course, repressive governments may attempt to conceal large parts of what is going on elsewhere from their citizens, like the the way that China is selectively blocking access to the web.
Obviously secrecy and privacy are critically important aspects of what is happening on the web, and much of the design of social tools is based on certain premises about privacy and secrecy, and the role that they play in social interactions.
Consider the core premises of pre-web and Web 1.0 era collaborative tools, which are still the major form of enterprise software. These are based on the premise that an individual's rights and responsibilities are based on group membership, and the role that individuals play within these groups.
For example, if I am an employee of XYZ Inc, I might be invited to work on a Basecamp project entitled 'Johnson Widgets' and the owner of the Basecamp account gives me the capability to comment on posts, upload files, and so on, but not to delete or edits other people's contributions. Once I made privy to the Johnson project, information defaults to being available to all participants, but the project and all it's contents are secrets concealed to those outside the group.
Members of the Johnson company -- XYZ's clients -- may also be invited to work in the project. Basecamp and other collaborative tools allow users to make certain posts 'private' -- meaning concealed from certain group members. For example, I could post something and make it visible only to XZY staff and not visible to Johnson staff.
My point is not some analysis of the specifics of Basecamp. Instead, my interest is privacy and secrecy in our web interactions. Web 1.0 and earlier collaborative tools are strongly biased toward secrecy and privacy. Web 2.0 tools are a mixed-up blending of privacy and secrecy principles with the mass openness of web publishing. And now, as we are moving into a new era of the web based on social tools, what will the major structuring principles be? What core aspects of social interaction will form the basis of what is coming now?
The fundamental core of social tools is that the individual comes first: our rights and responsibilities in social tools are not derived from membership in groups (in general), but are unalienable. The baseline rights are privacy-tinged -- what to include in your profile -- but in general one's stream obviates the profile. And then, the major social angle in social tools is deciding who matter: who to follow. That is a public choice, and this is the primary bond that makes a social matrix from individuals.
There is a countervailing trend away from privacy and secrecy and toward openness and transparency, both in the corporate and government sectors. And on the web, we have had several major steps forward in social tools that suggest at least the outlines of a complement, or opposite, to privacy and secrecy: publicy.
The idea of publicy is no more than this: rather than concealing things, and limiting access to those explicitly invited, tools based on publicy default to things being open and with open access.
Tumblr is a tool based on publicy. So is Twitter. Tumblr blogs and Twitter accounts default to open unless the user takes great efforts, and as a result the resulting communities are based on sharing of posts rather than membership in closed groups.
As I have said in the past the open sharing model of Twitter and Tumblr will be the dominant motif of all successful social tools of the next decade. This will be the publicy decade, where network effects are induced by growing awareness of the benefits of publicy and the negatives of privacy and secrecy-based social tools, customs, and institutions.
Don't get me wrong: I am not calling for an end to privacy or of secrets. They have their place, just as I would not want to make women into men (or vice versa) in the name of equality. What I am saying, however, is this: the basis of future web culture and the social tools that enable it to exist will be publicy, not privacy or secrecy.
Footnote: I did a search on 'publicy' when thinking about this post, and discovered that others have advanced the term. Laurent Haug wrote this:
Now that you are back in the driver seat, you have your privacy back. Just of a different kind. You have built a space that could be called “publicy”, or “the plausible me”. It is a credible space where people expect to see information about you. Whatever credible information you say in there will be taken as true by the world.
That is your new privacy. A space that is public but that you control, where you can say anything you want and have it taken as true.
This is not dissimilar to what I am getting at, although this revealing of the self angle is pretty much what privacy is about.
I also found a Wikipedia entry for publicy, citing a paper by Martijn Veldboer, a social scientist investigating immigrant response to unfamiliar public spheres. This is positioned as the opposite of privacy, but is very narrowly applied by Veldboer.