Web Privacy, In Praise of Oversharing 20100531 18:31
Last summer, the author and media critic Jeff Jarvis was diagnosed with a treatable form of prostate cancer. In many ways, he responded to this news the way most cancer patients have since the advent of modern medicine: he told his relatives; he went back for further tests and second opinions; he read up on the treatment options, ultimately deciding on surgery to remove his prostate.
But he did something else along the way: he started blogging about his recovery. For years he had posted regular missives on the state of the media business on his popular blog, buzzmachine.com. But Jarvis began using his pulpit to discuss much more intimate topics. He blogged about his reaction to the diagnosis, about the challenges of opting for surgery over radiation therapy. After the surgery, he blogged about the humiliation of wearing adult diapers. He blogged about his erectile dysfunction, albeit using slightly less technical language. Buzzmachine went from being a blog about the sagging state of the newspaper business to being about the sagging state of — well, you can see where this is going.
This is how we live now: we get news that we're facing a life-threatening disease, and the instinctive response is, *I'd better tweet this up right away*. We are constantly hearing about the Facebook generation's penchant for oversharing online, but Jarvis is in in his 50s, and he's not alone. The writer Howard Rheingold started a blog — called Howard's Butt<http://howardsbutt.tumblr.com/> — to chronicle his battle with colon cancer. The 64-year-old British technology journalist Guy Kewney <http://hunkymouse.livejournal.com/> blogged through the final months of his life after a year-long battle with colorectal cancer.
The strangest thing about tweeting your cancer diagnosis is that it doesn't even seem that strange anymore. We are overexposed to overexposure. But it's worth remembering that the Internet was not always supposed to turn into a networked version of *The Truman Show*, where we're all playing Truman. If you look back through the archives of early Internet enthusiasm — back in the day when you still had to explain what a "browser" was — one of the most striking things about that period is how obsessed it was with the technologies of privacy. The second issue of *Wired* feature an anonymous group of encryption experts on its cover. Entire books were written about the cutting-edge science of privacy keys that would allow you to transmit information that only a trusted recipient would be allowed to read. The premise was simple enough: these early tech visionaries recognized that our private lives were inevitably going to move online, which meant that we were going to have to develop electronic curtains to keep the neighbors and the Feds from peering in. *Let's say you got sick and had to communicate electronically with your doctor*, they would say. *You wouldn't want the whole world to find out about your condition, would you? That's why we need strong encryption tools.*
- Encryption proved to be exceptionally useful for financial transactions and
other official business online, but in the personal realm, that early privacy imperative now looks quaint, like the discreet bloomers of Victorian beachgoers. Some of us actually did want the whole world to find out about our condition. Life might be safer when private data stays private, but it also turns out to be less interesting.*
For Jarvis, the decision to blog about his condition was an easy one. "When I got the diagnosis, my immediate impulse was to go public," he says. "Now, you can say that this is because I'm an exhibitionist, but there was value that I wanted back from this community." Within days of his initial post, he had hundreds of comments on his blog, many of them simply wishing him well, but many offering specific advice from personal experience: what to expect in the immediate aftermath of the surgery, tips for dealing with the inconveniences of the recovery process. By taking this most intimate of experiences and making it radically public, Jarvis built an improvised support group around his blog: a space of solidarity, compassion, and shared expertise. And in conducting this conversation in public, Jarvis had another target audience in mind: Google. Because Buzzmachine enjoys a high ranking in Google's index, Jarvis's posts about his cancer were likely to be featured prominently in search results for prostate cancer-related queries. "Yes, you get support from friends by going public with something like this — that's pretty obvious," he says. "But you also get highly detailed information about what you're about to go through, and you have the ability for all of us together to inspire other people to go get tested."
In the end, it wasn't just a conversation for Jarvis, it was a conversation for the thousands of other people who will come to those pages through Google. There is an intensity and honesty to these public disclosures that can be enormously helpful, next to the formal, anonymous advice of a hospital cancer site. When you read through Guy Kewney's final posts, you hear a voice that you almost never encounter, the voice of someone who has made enough of a peace with death that he can look it squarely in the eyes, someone writing about the daily indignities of terminal disease alongside an honest accounting of the loss he feels dying at a too-early age, interrupted by strange flashes of happiness.
Jarvis now talks about this experience as a lesson in the virtues of "publicness." The Constitution may not contain an explicit reference to the right to privacy, but the notion that privacy is something worth cherishing and protecting needs little justification. What Jarvis suggests is that the opposite condition needs its defenders: that publicness, too, has its merits. Oversharing, in a strange way, turns out to be a civic good. This concept also dates back to the early days of the electronic commons; Rheingold's 1993 book The Virtual Community told the story of a member of the pioneering online community, The Well, posting about an ultimately fatal battle with cancer. But The Well was a small community compared to the vast expanse of the Web, and those conversations unfolded in a space uncrawled by Google's spiders. The shared experience and wisdom that comes from living in public can now reach a much bigger audience — most of them complete strangers, dropping into the conversation from a search query.
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