Blogger Pronouns: thoughts on simplicity, exclusivity, openness, and privacy

Hi Eli, Colin, Serena, Josh. Thanks so much for your thoughts on the Blogging in the Second Person post.

Eli, your response makes me think of Dear Dealer, a recent segment on This American Life. It is an essay addressed in the second person. For this essay, at least, the POV frames the story in such a way that personalizes the issue far beyond a third person report on the subject. Tying the idea of simplicity to POV here is interesting. By no means do I think we should say something prescriptive, such as a blog reply ought to be in the second person. But perhaps what we can say is that the second person might help simplify some responses in ways that give them much greater clarity and meaning?

Colin, I agree that the “reluctance to exclude some readers” is probably a key reason why we bloggers sound like editorialists. This thought provokes the question further for me: I’m curious to what extent does it feel alienating to read a text that is written as correspondence? Is this principally a concern with perceived contextlessness? I am imagining someone reading these words who did not read the initial text that sparked this conversation: does this reader presently now feel more left out or uninvited to participate than had I written this in the third person? (It’s an honest question: I’m not sure.)

Serena, I have also contemplated the concern that blogging as correspondence might “restrict the conversation between the original poster and the responder.” On the one hand, I agree it’s a very fair and valid concern. And, simultaneously, I wonder if there anyone reading this post who feels excluded from this conversation, or unable to participate in it? If we grant the hypothesis that public writing is about engagement, does not a text’s inherent publicness itself invite input? Perhaps this exchange is akin to leaving messages to your pen pal on a public bulletin board, or adding to the ‘thread’ of a graffiti exchange? Could we also suppose that open dialogue is in another way more inclusive and invitational of external input than it is exclusive?

Josh, I love your question, “would some individuals be uncomfortable having a ‘letter’ written to them made public without prior permission?” I’m fascinated by the psychology and cultural underpinnings here, and the proposition that a shift in pronouns might be felt to necessitate acquiring the permission of the intended recipient — who is the same person regardless of the POV of the text. I wholeheartedly agree that the grand traditions of ‘open letters’ and ‘letters to the editor’ in print media have earned reputations for public shaming and one-sided takedowns. But how much of this expectation is contextual, genre-based behaviour? As Serena says, “I’d have no qualms about responding to you in the 2nd person if I was replying to you in the comments section.” Do we not write very open, public messages to one another all the time already? I wonder: by nature of maintaining a presence on a platform — one which bakes comments or responding into its infrastructure — do we not implicitly agree that others will write both to and about us? What does this mean in the blogging context? By nature of a person presenting their ideas publicly to the whole world, do they not inherently invite the world to respond however it so will?

I appreciate the input and perspective that all four of you bring to this question. The more I think about, the more the blogosphere sounds like a parliament: instead of addressing our interlocutor, we address the Speaker of the House, who happens to be the impersonal whole of the internet. This observation isn’t intended to outline a ‘problem’ that demands a prescriptive ‘solution.’ But I am thankful for the opportunity to engage in this discussion with you.

If you’re not doing anything wrong, what do you have to hide?

I’m hosting a podcast conversation in a few weeks with a small panel on the topic of privacy. Our goal is to interrogate a common refrain; a statement that is often repeated and reinforced across society: “I have nothing to hide. I am not doing anything wrong. Why should I be so concerned about privacy?”

We want to deconstruct the “But-I’m-not-doing-anything-wrong” line of reasoning from the ground up. What does this argument miss? Where does it fall apart? What does it unconsciously assume?

Ahead of our chat, I’m crowdsourcing more perspectives. I’m super curious about this: when you hear a friend or relative say something along the lines of, “If someone is not doing anything wrong, what do they have to hide?” how do you respond? 

I will put together a synthesis and compilation of input. Here are a few initial thoughts to get the ball rolling:

  • ‘I’m not doing anything wrong’ assumes a statistic definition of what is wrong, or at least what is punishable. What is ‘right’ under one regime can get you arrested and tortured under another. (P.S. As an individual, you have no control over potential regime changes down the road.) Privacy is, to some extent, future-proofing.

  • Human trust and intimacy depends on privacy: we define the depth of our relationships in large part by what we share with whom, and what they, in turn, entrust to us. The proposition that “Where there are no secrets, there are no lies,” entails that where there are no secrets, there are also no relationships.

  • As ‘The Girl’ (played by Amanda Seyfried) in Anon says: “It’s not that I have something to hide. I have nothing I want you to see.”

  • Are your health records, Facebook browsing history, banking and credit statements, Amazon shopping cart, and list of all past Google searches equally important pieces of data to you? What if one variable, say, your health records, could be predicted by another, like your Google search history?  

  • Over on Micro.blog, Robert shared a thought experiment highlighting the distinction between privacy and secrecy: why do you bother to close the bathroom door? “We all know what you’re doing in there — why not just leave the door open? Why so secretive? What are you hiding?” The choice to do your biological business behind a locked door is precisely that, a choice: “Privacy is about retaining control over the choice of when, whether, and to whom, you release information about yourself.” Privacy on the toilet has nothing to do with toileting ‘rightly’ or ‘wrongly’ — it is about exercising your right to disclose (or not disclose) something about yourself, on your terms.

  • Who really ‘wins’ — whose power is reinforced? — if everyone is convinced — or tricked to believe — that the complete transparency of everything is the requirement for security for everyone? The notion that ‘secrecy = guilt’ is an interesting, widely adopted cultural motif… whose interests could it possibly serve?

Your turn! How do you respond to the person who says, “I’m not doing anything wrong, so why should I care about privacy?”

The Lie of the Timeline

Having pulled the plug on my social media presence, it is interesting to think about these platforms from the outside. Indeed, I am thinking about them very often. The reoccurring engrained impulse, I should post this on Twitter, remains a very strong instinctive muscle response.

It’s like my brain is a recovering pigeon that escaped from a Zuckerbergian version of a B.F. Skinner lab.

This respond-in-the-moment impulse highlights one of social media’s most conniving sleight of hands. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter present themselves to us as timelines, as if this moment is a ‘snapshot’ in a timeline. They purport to engage us in this moment, in the present. But as we engage, we do not merely input data into a timecoded sliver of history called ‘the present’, but into an archival dataset that is ostensibly the property of someone else, and for their profit. Timelines that ask us to comment on the present are lies: a status update is not really about the present moment at all, but about compiling your data profile.

Social media steals our present, saves it ‘outside’ of time, so it can ‘serve’ us ads in the future. This exchange is equally true if you are a selfie- or foodie-enthusiast, a tele-grandparent, a hate mongering troll, or a social justice warrior. Everyone is being played.

Farewell Social Media

I recently purged the data from my Facebook account. This effort was shockingly labour intensive: it took a browser script all weekend to crunch, and still many aspects of the process required manual execution. Torching years and years of old Facebook activity felt so liberating that I found another script to do the same thing to my Twitter account.

Going in, I had no idea just how difficult it would be to remove so much data. There is zero commercial incentivize for Facebook or Twitter to provide a “Delete all my posted data but let me keep my contact network” option. These platforms make it monstrously tedious to remove one’s content short of deleting one’s entire account. These systems are apparently designed to make personal ‘data purges’ extremely cumbersome for users.

As Tom Peters observed, “The sole concern of Google and Facebook is to convert the most intimate details in your life into revenue.” But many of us have been using these platforms for so many years that we fail to appreciate just how much data we have donated to them along the way. Try scrolling to the very bottom of your Facebook activity log or Google search history to see what I mean. Dylan Curran’s recent piece in the Guardian demonstrates the scale and magnitude of our complacency. If you want to become acutely aware of how valuable your data is to these companies, try jumping through the hoops required to take your data off their systems. Even if you decide to award the contract for chronicling your life to these companies, you need to be precisely aware of how much you are giving away. As soon as you try to do something as ‘simple’ as remove your past posts, you suddenly realize how soothingly you’ve been lulled into shovelling your personal life into corporate data mines.

At present, I have no plans to post to Facebook, Twitter, or Google again anytime soon. The sole function of my now ‘dormant’ accounts is to allow me to utilize these networks as ‘living directories’ when they present themselves as the only available tools to make contact with certain individuals. Other than that, I’m signing off, at least for the time being. I will leave this post as final ‘breadcrumb’ on Facebook and Twitter.

My focus remains on writing. I will continue posting regularly here on my blog, with a greater emphasis on engaging in the discussions and debates that emerge. If you would like to follow my writing moving ahead, you are welcome to subscribe to weekly email updates. You can also subscribe to this site’s RSS feed with a service like Feedly, Feedbin, Inoreader, or Feed Wrangler. I highly recommend Reeder as a feed reader client.

I will not be syndicating links to new blog posts on social media. I am not interested in supporting our increased dependency on algorithms to determine what we see and read… and, ultimately, think. I do not want to spend my time tweaking or ‘gaming’ algorithms. I am just not interested in the race anymore. The more I play the algorithm game, the more the algorithm game plays me.

I’m out. There are many things I hope to do while I am alive… trying to convince somebody’s advertising algorithm to pay attention to me is not one of those things. Multiply this conviction by the sense that spending time on social media is a suboptimal use of time that comes at the expense of things I truly care about and leaving seems evermore desirable. Just one life to live: I refuse to be a collateral pawn in someone else’s attention war.

Moving ahead, I will use email as my principal means of communicating and organizing personal endeavours, initiatives, and projects. If we have not already corresponded by email, please send me a note at contact [at] jamesshelley.com and say hi. Why? Email is peer-to-peer, distributed, non-proprietary, and adaptable. It is, as far as I can tell right now, the best ‘social platform’ presently at our disposal.

(I will also be maintaining my presence on micro.blog, which is a fascinating, experimental platform. Micro.blog is like a ‘social layer’ that maps over open and independent web sites.)

If you are thinking about purging or deleting your social media accounts, I’d love to hear what you are thinking. What are the considerations that you are weighing? What are your primary concerns? I am curious about your story. Looking back, it’s interesting how many different factors played into this decision for me. How do other paths unfold?

I can’t quite describe how ‘lightening’ it feels to start over again. It is our data that we are giving away here, and it is entirely within our prerogative to take it back. To each their own, but I, for one, am moving on. In the final analysis, it is simply about exercising my choice: Facebook and Twitter are not working for me, so I will focus my energies in other directions. This is about more time and space for connection, community, and conversation. Saying no to the algorithmic data miners really means saying yes to something else.

After some reflection, I’ve concluded that even posting to Twitter is just providing content to a platform for hate and anger. I can’t fix that problem, but I can stop contributing to the platform. And so I will. — Curtis Clifton