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A moderate lament for the imminent passing of privacy

Date

Tim Soutphommasane

Our constant connection through Facebook and its like may have a downside.

For all that we may enjoy self-disclosure, sometimes a dose of introspection can do us good.

For all that we may enjoy self-disclosure, sometimes a dose of introspection can do us good. Photo: AP

I DON'T remember exactly when I signed up to Facebook but it was some time in 2005, when I was a graduate student in England. Facebook was just over a year old, and used exclusively by students in universities in North America and Britain. If you had told me that in seven years' time I'd be writing a newspaper column about its global impact, I wouldn't have believed you. But here I am.

Last Friday, Facebook had its long-awaited initial public offering in the US. What began as a project in founder Mark Zuckerberg's Harvard dorm room is now a public company valued - some say overvalued - at more than $US100 billion.

Facebook joins the ranks of the top 25 listed companies in the US, with a market value that surpasses that of companies such as McDonald's and Ford. About one in seven people on the planet is an active user of the website, including close to half the Australian population. By any measure, it is a remarkable commercial story.

Far more profound is Facebook's social and cultural significance. The conventional wisdom states that Facebook and its social media cousin Twitter are transforming politics as we know it. Many point to the Arab Spring as a sign of how Twitter revolutions and Facebook activism will spread democracy around the world. Technological innovation is supposedly leading us to civic progress.

Whether you subscribe to so-called cyber-utopianism or not, there is one reality that is beyond dispute. Something has happened to the way many of us live and interact as a result of Facebook and social media.

It isn't just that we are constantly ''connected'' to friends and acquaintances. Our embrace of Facebook has involved a radical redrawing of the lines that divide our public and private lives. Things that were once regarded as belonging to the province of one's private life are now regularly broadcast to those outside our intimate circle.

Personal identities have always been defined by a sense of recognition, to be sure; it has always mattered that others recognise us for who we are. But never have our personal identities been so dependent on their public expression. The creeping influence of social media impels us, however insidiously, to believe that nothing is validated as reality until it is either put into a status update or a tweet.

I suspect we're yet to grasp how dramatic this change may be. Those of us who know of a world without Facebook or Twitter may recall a less therapeutic society, in which one's opinion didn't always need to be stated aloud. But will generations that grow up with social media consider privacy and self-containment as quaint notions from an alien past? Will they ever pause to disconnect from the noise and chatter of an online world?

There are reasons for concern. British scientist Susan Greenfield warns that Facebook risks infantilising the 21st-century mind by fostering among its users ''short attention spans, sensationalism, an inability to empathise and a shaky sense of identity''. Some recent research suggests a correlation between using Facebook and suffering from depression.

At the very least, the internet has exposed or magnified our human frailties - particularly of the narcissistic kind.

Neuroscientists in the US have found, for example, that talking about ourselves triggers the same sensation of pleasure in the brain as the reward of food, money or sex. Social media may be liberating our true natures, just not in ways that are always positive.

Indeed, there is something deeply disruptive about the way social media is changing our identities. Individuality was once something that was to be discovered from within. Today, it seems to be all about something to be shown off to others. Authenticity has become inauthentic. Private is becoming public.

There is something we can do.

I think of the American philosopher Henry David Thoreau in the mid-19th century. Confronted with an industrialising society, transformed by the railroad and the telegraph, Thoreau famously retreated to the woods of Walden Pond in Massachusetts, building himself a small house to enjoy a life of rustic simplicity for two years. As Thoreau explained in Walden, a book that documented his experiment in living: ''I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.''

My point here isn't to suggest that we substitute some kind of Luddite existence for our permanent connectedness. Short of the woods, it is enough for us to retreat some of the time to a sanctuary somewhere, away from the multitudes and from the world online. Whatever we may think about the value of social networks, we shouldn't forget the value of solitude. And for all that we may enjoy self-disclosure, sometimes a dose of introspection can do us good.

Maybe, instead of logging in to Facebook, we should try finding a quiet corner at home and opening our journals. I think I just might.

Tim Soutphommasane is a political philosopher at Monash University.

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17 comments

  • Queue the individuals who've left Facebook and have had their lives dramatically improved as they look down upon us from their ivory tower.

    Commenter
    jrad_h
    Date and time
    May 21, 2012, 9:24AM
    • *cue ?

      Commenter
      dave
      Date and time
      May 21, 2012, 10:30AM
    • Us "oldies" (40+), even if we use Facebook, realised before we started that privacy was too valuabe to give away. My kids (4-7) will learn this before they start. Unfortunately those in the middle (mainly 15-25) will find out that they were the only generation to give so much away, and will not be able to take it back.

      Wiser heads know that Facebook, while a useful tool, is an extaordinarily shallow way of trying to communicate the rich depth of real human relationships. Life is far more nuanced than Facebook allows, so in reality it can only ever convey a small faction of your personality.

      Commenter
      Misha
      Location
      Tumbi Umbi
      Date and time
      May 21, 2012, 1:45PM
  • Couldn't agree more. All part of the 'nobody is more important than me' society we are becoming. I'm on facebook but I never post and I open it maybe one every two weeks to catch up on friends. Mind you in so doing I have to read a lot of drivel.

    Commenter
    blaubaer
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    May 21, 2012, 9:30AM
    • Hey, apparently this Facebook thing was started in a Harvard dorm room.

      Commenter
      The Headmasta
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      May 21, 2012, 9:38AM
      • I've got both Facebook and Twitter on my Apple 4S.But where as Twitter has breaking news I'm yet to see the same on Facebook.

        Commenter
        politixjunkie
        Location
        Brunswick West
        Date and time
        May 21, 2012, 9:49AM
        • I can remember the wonders of early Skype - so wonderful that as I would check e-mails before heading out for my lengthy teaching days - there would be a cousin late at night buzzing me from Canada and settling in for a long chat. It seemed after three or four times saying: "Sorry mate - hello but good-bye!" I couldn't stand the sense of "rudeness" I was being reduced to - so I ended my Skyping. Nowadays I still check e-mails morning and night - but as for moving on to Facebook - judging from all the negatives I read - no thanks!

          Commenter
          Tokujiro
          Date and time
          May 21, 2012, 10:49AM
          • I quit facebook last week for two reasons: 1. All I was doing was maintaining a scrapbook journal in such a way that other people could peek over my shoulder and applaud or ignore me...mostly the latter. Well, I can be ignored more comprehensively by staying offline. 2. My real interest was in the goings-on of my girlfriend
            ...hardly a worthy reason for being there. And the reality is that how and what one presents online is one's public face. Thankfully, I see the private (true?) face of my girfriend where it should be...in private. 3. I finally became unsettled by the knowledge that I was a grain of sand in the beach of information that we gift facebook , the facebook now owns about us...and that I have lost control over the information I have already shared. Oh well...no-one held a gun to my head to make me sign up in the first place.

            I have no criticism of anyone who uses facebook et al. My teenage kids use it to their great advantage.

            But for me...it's a nothingness. It cant create a social world for me that doesnt exist elsewhere...i.e. in the flesh.

            So enough...back to Walden :-)

            Commenter
            YeahBut
            Date and time
            May 21, 2012, 11:28AM
            • Community based on geographic location is dead. Through Facebook and the like we are forming new communities based on common interests, values etc. My interest in my neighbours is based more on curiosity than a desire to know them and so I very rarely communicate with them beyond a nod or a smile. People seem to shun over familiarity in our neighborhood so I give reign to my gregarious nature in social media, much greater sense of sharing. Plus, I'm a largely built guy, with females, who I enjoy communicating with, easily feeling threatened outside the security of cyber parameters.

              Commenter
              feral
              Date and time
              May 21, 2012, 12:12PM
              • and this is the very thing this article is about, overreliance on facebook and other forms of social media is creating a generation of socially awkward, mal adjusted individuals who don’t know how to communicate face to face with each other.

                Also, your comment "Community based on geographic location is dead. " you obviously dont understand the human animal and it's basic need to socialize.

                Commenter
                over it
                Date and time
                May 21, 2012, 1:58PM

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