alblasserdam area, nl
This text was written for the Merging Spaces project, realized at the Kinderdijk Project House in Spring 2013.
In contemporary society, the division between private and public is growing less and less obvious. Anything outside of your house used to be public, everything on the inside private, but this has changed since the 40s. Candid Camera and other reality television programmes started showing private lives to the public. These programmes reveal otherwise private endeavors to the public domain, since people filmed were not always aware of cameras present. A new kind of reality television format emerged when people started to consciously share their private lives on television. British Up Series (1964) is a great example of this; Fourteen young British children are filmed every seven years, from the age of 7 onwards. They are free to contribute in each following episode, but most participants used this opportunity to share joys and sorrows with audiences around the world, completely aware of the fact that everything they said would now be in the public domain. Some of them quit after a couple of episodes, but we can still follow a few of the original seven year olds in the eighth episode of the series, 56 Up! which was recently aired.
We document more and more. We share more of what we document. Sharing has become easier. Sharing is encouraged more and more. Facebook and its users have set up a world in which the feeling of missing vital parts of life is increased when people don’t share or get shared. Peer pressure is huge.
Sharing is caring
What drives people to keep sharing personal information on social network sites? Social network sites make use of the known aspects of group behaviour in a clever way; One of the most important aspects of group behaviour is the power of the crowd, originating in prehistoric times of our existence, where the forming of a group was the essential key to survival. It comes down to the group forming an opinion (‘we dress warm enough so we won’t freeze during winter times’), and everyone who acts differently in any way (‘no bro, I really like my t-shirt, even though it’s five degrees below zero…’) gets called out by the group, just as long until they start acting like the others again (‘yes, thank you for this lovely coat made of dead baby seals!’). Social media exist because of the power of the crowd. As long as enough people have joined the network, others will join more easily (‘oh, how come you didn’t know that? Ah, I see, you’re not on Facebook…’) and it will become more and more difficult to leave the digital heaven of procrastination, mostly out of fear one might miss out on something ‘really important’.
A recent study at the University of Amsterdam has shown that a serious percentage of adolescents active on social network sites (especially Facebook) are experiencing stress because of… being active on social network sites. They have the feeling that they cannot stop using Facebook, in fear of not being updated by their friends, and they cannot stop posting status updates about themselves out of the fear of being forgotten… The power of the crowd keeps them active online.
Sharing so much of our lives online causes our online and offline worlds to merge. Our own actions link these two, and they will eventually be challenging to separate. One of the main differences between the two worlds is that it is more difficult to define the border between public and private online. A Facebook account used by someone to discuss their private life is an example of an online domain that is both public and private. A password protected personal blog is clearly a private domain, as there is control over who gets to see its contents.
The Era of Post-Privacy
A social network like Facebook must make it as appealing as possible for us to share our information, in order for us to look past the fact that Facebook openly sells our personal information to third parties. Do we still care about our privacy and more importantly, should we? Why even bother if we don’t care; privacy seems to increasingly become a thing of the past. There are many companies and (governmental) institutions that know close to anything about us. It was a hot topic when the Dutch government decided that everyone above the age of fourteen were to be able to hand over an official form of identification from the 1st of January 2005 onwards, which reminded people of the German suppression in the WWII. Two years later however, the Dutch couldn’t seem to be bothered when a chipped travel card was announced to come out, storing personal details and travel history, even though it turned out to be easy to hack.
It is not always clear whether a situation online is private or public. This becomes painfully obvious when something meant for a select few is shared online publicly, especially when the sharing is done by someone is in a position where politically correct behaviour is expected and demanded. Even inappropriate tweets on personal accounts have caused people in important public positions to get fired. Should there be a ‘How to behave on Twitter?’ manual for these people and adolescents who don’t know what’s fitting behaviour online? Deleting 20.000 Tweets from the public domain might not be possible, but having a future employer read who you thought was a ‘twat’ all those years ago is obviously not ideal. It seems that today’s guide of how to handle your own online privacy is mostly related to a part of the Miranda warning: “You have the right to remain silent. Everything you say or do will be held against you…” But in this case, it’s without a free attorney for the poor.
Facebook’s privacy settings seem to be the only ones that still pop up as hot items in discussions, while other social media sites seem to go over unnoticed. Interestingly, most Facebook accounts are partly or completely hidden to the public, while most of Twitter accounts are publicly accessible. A vast majority of these public Twitter accounts are owned by people who have private Facebook accounts, meaning anyone interested is able to find the same information on Twitter, that is seemingly not meant for outsiders on Facebook.
Learning what we are supposed to share and not share online seems to be a work in progress. None of us grew up with social media as it is today, and online etiquette is in daily development. It’s a process of trial and error. Whatever traces you leave behind on the web, they seem to be your own responsibility and your very own problem if something happens to them. Some believe our online privacy should be a governmental issue, with governments interfering in what information we are allowed to share online and what should be kept unrevealed, but I personally believe self-regulation needs to be sufficient; it’s a process of natural selection. Evolution, baby!
Merging Spaces is about merging online and offline domains in a way that hasn’t been done before: Sharing online messages. Most intriguing is the difference between the ways we experience and deal with privacy online and offline.
Does our behaviour change when going from online to offline spaces? One way to find out is to see what happens when we combine online and offline worlds, in this case this is done by taking publicly published Tweets, and printing them on stickers. These Tweets on stickers were then spread around the surroundings of their authors. Some of them used Google Maps coordinates with their messages, which made it very easy to find them. I found myself in front of a house inhabited by a girl who wasn’t always subtle in her Twitter messages in no time. It was easy to confront her close surroundings with her publicly spread online messages, only this was obviously offline. In this case, sticking one of her Tweets on a garbage bin in front of her house was enough.
Eventually, more than 30 Tweets were spread offline during my stay at Kinderdijk Project, covering Alblasserdam, Nieuw-Lekkerland and Kinderdijk. Some of the original authors have discovered the project, talking about it on their own Twitter accounts. Is this project compromising their privacy? No, as their messages were already in the public domain. However, this was an online public domain, and all I did was increase the range to public spaces in the offline world; Parks open to the public, garbage bins, and public bathrooms. None of the messages were placed in private spaces. Every message was accompanied by a source, as the printed Tweets were screen grabs of the author’s public accounts. Everything they want to share with us has been placed there by themselves.
One of the highlights of the project has already happened: one of the authors has accused me of making her Twitter account public, and picking some less charming pictures to be published again in the offline world. This only conjures up one reply: don’t shoot the messenger.