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Privacy in the Digital Age

By November 18, 2016Trends and Issues

Privacy Is A Myth

The truth is, we never had online privacy and we never will. 

We can manage it as best we can, and we should. But let’s face it, with more than one billion people on Facebook, and over 500 million tweets going out daily across the globe, managing our personal lives in the Digital Age is just a matter of degrees.

With all this openness, we need to ask the important question whether we are enjoying a new renaissance in social technology, or is the internet stealing our soul?

To help me process this, I’ve turned to Jeff Jarvis (2011), Director if the Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism and New York City University and author of the book, Public Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live. In a podcast by World Affairs, he shares insights into the tension created between the open internet culture and personal privacy, examining its effects on people and communities.

From the outset of his talk, Jarvis is quick to say there many negatives being touted in the media concerning breaches in online privacy. He doesn’t dispute this fact and even encourages the public to take steps to protect their privacy. However, he makes use of the “hot and cold” illustration and suggests that we can’t live in a world of publicness without privacy, and we need privacy to have publicness.

New Technologies, New Norms

One of the strongest arguments he makes is how new technologies always bring about a new uncomfortableness with which society must grapple. For example, the printing press brought with it worries that putting ideas down on paper, and distributing these ideas permanently and widely with names attached, would expose the authors in some way to a negative response.


1890 Kodak Camera

One of the first widely publicized challenges to public norms occurred when Kodak camera was invented. Its portability was alarming to people because they didn’t like the idea that photographs could be taken of them without their knowing about it. The New York Times would write headlines like, “Fiendish Kodakkers Lie in Wait!” Teddy Roosevelt even banned “Kodakking” in Washington Park at the time because he didn’t want public pictures taken of his children. Of course, portable photography is a major hobby we all enjoy now, but it wasn’t always on the good side of public opinion.

A modern controversy now surrounds Google Street View and their little car that goes around snapping pictures of neighborhoods. When the Google car reached Germany in 2010, a ruckus occurred and over 244,000 citizens ended up signing a form to be “pixelated” from GSV (inviting the name Blurmany). To date, there are over one million households blurred out. Is this extreme? Yes or no, depending on cultural norms. Germans are historically very private. But it is interesting to note that the young people, the Millenials, do not seem to mind the Google car in their neighborhoods. It’s a new norm in the process of developing.


German street blurred out from Google street view.

The Big Question

We all know there are negatives to using online networks. Cyber security, questionable content, and the huge phenomenon called online disinhibition effect, where internet users will say anything in an environment lacking consequences. Without fear of punishment, the net is wide open to cyberbullying and a whole slew of toxic behaviors.

But do we abandon all the potential good and positive connections that can occur because there is this a dark side to the web? I agree with Jarvis and say no. Here are just a few good things the internet provides:

1.  Sustains relationships
2.  Enables collaboration
3.  Streamlines processes
4.  Enable trust-building we choose to be open with others.
5.  Disarms the myth of perfection – beta testing culture invites input and embraces failure
6.  Can neutralize stigmas
7.  Enlarges our circles and grants credit where it’s due
8.  Enables “wisdom of the crowd”
9.  Helps us organize – Kickstarter, GoFundMe, Local Motors…
10.Expands/sophisticates our notion of “public”

Lastly, there is great benefit to information sharing. One example Jarvis uses is that survivors of 9/11 encountered several specific illnesses in the aftermath of the Twin Towers crumbling. Sharing online created a unique support system that helped the survivors cope emotionally and receive valuable medical advice from one another. This is a beautiful thing and can only happen because the internet is open and free, and as “netizens,” we should work to keep it that way.jar


  • Nick says:

    Hi Lisa!

    I struggle with being happy if I have social media. I haven’t turned on my Facebook since May and to be honest, it has made a total transformation in my life. Unplugging myself online was the best decision I ever made. Now when I hang out with my friends, we have things to talk about and catch up on. Rather than sitting there with little to nothing to say because we already ‘know’ what each other has been doing online. I found it fascinating that cameras/photographs were banned because this relates back to people posting pictures online without their consent. I also was unaware that you could ask Google to blur your house. I think the reason why many millennials are okay with this is that they feel this is the norm. However, my friends and I are super creeped out by this! Why do we need a street view of houses?!
    I love the internet, don’t get me wrong. It brings many ideas and people together, but I feel like we are losing the internet to hate and negativity. It just seems that anytime I go online, horrible tragedies are thrown at me, contrary views, and I just wish we could each filter our internet to be what we want it to be; it should be customizable.

    • Lisa Fish says:

      Wow! Those are great thoughts! Unplugging online takes out the “knowing” equation in each others’ lives, hence giving you more to talk about is an interesting discovery. I get that! I’ve thought about unplugging from Facebook, it seems like there is so much politicizing and catharsis going on there. The thing that stops me is that’s how a lot of people message me. Maybe it’s time to utilize email more. The idea of making the internet customizable is intriguing. It is hard to control the content that comes through–seems like i sift through a lot of junk sometimes to get the good. Some say that’s the “price” for having free internet. For some, that price is too high. Thanks for your thoughts! This is an interesting topic to discuss.

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