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This essay, like the one I posted last month on faux-vintage photography, is me hashing out ideas as part of my larger dissertation project on self-documentation and social media. Part I is found here.A barrage of media stories are professing the “Death of Anonymity,” the “End of Forgetting” and an “Era of Omniscience.” They are screaming a sensationalism that is part of the larger project to drum up fear about how “public” we are when using social media. While there are indeed risks involved with using social media, these articles engage in a risky hyperbole that I will try to counter-balance here.

Part I of this essay rethought claims of hyper-publicity by theoretically reorienting the concept of publicity itself. Using theorists like Bataille and Baudrillard, I argue that being public is not the end of privacy but instead has everything to do with it. Social media is more like a fan dance: a game of reveal and conceal. Today, I will further take to task our collective tendency to overstate publicity in the age of social media. Sensationalizing the risks of “living in public” perpetuates the stigma around an imperfect social media presence, intensifying the very risk we hope to avoid. But first, let’s look at examples of this sensationalism.

I. Media Sensationalism
Pointing out the dangers of living public online is an important task, but sensationalizing this risk is all too common. Indeed, the media has a long history of sensationalizing all sorts of risks, creating fear to drum up ratings, sales, clicks and page-views. From sexting to cyberbullying to the loss of “deep” learning, political activism, and “real” social connections, I’ve written many times about how the media has found social media to be a particularly fertile space to exploit fear for profit.

Alternatively, a more accurate description of publicity on social media, and the risks associated with it, would include (1) thoroughly describing the risk as well as (2) providing some notion of the approximate probability of that risk occurring and (3) mentioning potential positives of living in public.

To be very clear: the risks surrounding using social media are real. Information about ourselves online is expanding, whether or not you posted it yourself. Surveillance is more pervasive, decentralized, networked, and real-time. This may lead to identity theft, losing one’s job or partner, or being publicly shamed for embarrassing mistakes. Indeed, there may be what danah boyd (2010 .pdf) calls “invisible audiences” online that you may not be aware of that simply are not as pervasive or problematic offline. And, as I have written elsewhere, the privacy risks are not evenly distributed, but instead are faced more by those most vulnerable (for example, racy pictures are forgiven more quickly for men than women).

What a non-sensationalist description of these risks would also provide is some hint at the positives of living in public online: Facebook use is associated with having more close connections, the honest/public nature of Facebook might have played a very important role in the recent uprisings in the Middle East and in North Africa, and White (2003) describes the way that displaying oneself online can be an act of taking control over the gaze, suggesting that wanting to be seen can bring great pleasure.

We could postulate more positives, but my purpose here is to describe the prevailing trend to hyperbolize the negatives without mentioning their likelihood of occurrence or the existence of positives. Examples of this kind of sensationalism are very easy to find:

Last month, the New York Times ran an article by Brian Stelter proclaiming that “the Web unmasks everyone” and is where “anonymity dies.” The article goes on to argue that, thanks to Facebook, we are witnessing an end of privacy because the Internet never forgets.

Another New York Times article published a year ago by Jeffery Rosen called “The Web Means the End of Forgetting” questions

how best to live our lives in a world where the Internet records everything and forgets nothing — where every online photo, status update, Twitter post and blog entry by and about us can be stored forever.

He states that the,

fact that the Internet never seems to forget is threatening, at an almost existential level, our ability to control our identities.

The consequence is that,

for a great many people, the permanent memory bank of the Web increasingly means there are no second chances — no opportunities to escape a scarlet letter in your digital past. Now the worst thing you’ve done is often the first thing everyone knows about you.

A more recent New York Times piece ran with the title “Is Anonymity Dead?” And in 2008 they ran an article titled “The End of Online Anonymity.”

And there is Zygmunt Bauman’s recent article in the Guardian titled “is this the end of anonymity?” Bauman states that the web is ushering in an “end of invisibility and autonomy”:

Everything private is now done, potentially, in public – and is potentially available to public consumption; and remains available for the duration, till the end of time

Another article in the Guardian quotes a psychotherapist as stating,

because of digital technology, society’s ability to forget has become suspended, replaced by perfect memory.

And the blogosphere likes to run with this exaggeration, too. For example this post states that we’ve entered into an “era of omniscience” and quotes the Bible: “there is nothing covered that shall not be revealed; and hid that shall not be known.”

I could go on, but we have enough here to start calling out this sensationalism: Anonymity is declining, it is not dead. The web forgets less, but it still sometimes forgets. We are living in an era of more knowledge, not an era of omniscience. The web unmasks some people sometimes, but it does not unmask everyone. The worst thing you’ve done might be the first thing people know about you, but probably not. There is less invisibility, but invisibility is not dead. Society’s memory has become better, but it is not perfect. Much is increasingly revealed, but much remains concealed (as I argued in Part I).

The hyperbolic statements center around the idea that digital content is immortal and searchable by millions of others. While (mostly) true, it should also be noted that the vast majority of all digital content is seen by virtually no one. Maybe we just like the thought that everything we do is being recorded for all time, but the reality is very few people are looking at your latest tweet or photo. Sorry.

Lots of fear is drummed up by the possibility of having your life ruined by a poorly worded status update. But have you ever tried searching for your or others old Facebook status updates? Good luck. Try to searching for your old tweets. One point I have made previously is that the very immortality of digital content is precisely what causes its relative obscurity. Let’s be more realistic when describing the risks associated with using social media by also discussing probability and reward. Why? Because sensationalizing risk is itself risky.

II. Why Sensationalism Is Problematic
The major issue with media sensationalism, beyond simply being incorrect as is shown above, is that sensationalism actually intensifies and perpetuates the risk itself.The stigma surrounding having imperfections online is eroding, however, not for everyone equally. As we, especially younger folks, increasingly live our lives online, flaws and all, the norm will be to have a little “digital dirt” on our hands and a few “Facebook skeletons” in our closets. Imperfections will continue to be as forgivable as they always have.

But the trend to be more accepting of humans simply being human online is being impeded by news stories that sensationalize risk. By making too big a deal out of a “racy” photo or a stupid status update, the media reifies how big of a deal it is. If they, instead, discussed the risks in the context of likelihood and potential benefits, perhaps even coupled with the idea that the risky stigma may be eroding, then we might make more progress towards forgiving imperfections and thus lessen the risk at hand in the first place. The obsession solidifies stigma instead of letting it erode.

Part of the reason why we might want the risk to erode is because, as I mentioned above, the risk has disproportionally negative affects for vulnerable and marginalized populations. For example, we owe it to the future women running for political office to make clear the risks involved with living online, but to do so in way that does not obsess over, say, “racy” photos. The more we obsess about the risks associated with digital imperfections the more there will be sensationalist compulsion on the part of the media to dig into old Facebook photos and obsess over any image where a skirt is deemed too short. That will keep good people, especially women, from running for office.

Simply, in order for any risk to be taken seriously, it needs to be described accurately. To over-state risk ultimately does more to obscure than to elucidate it, which ultimately harms those we are trying to help.danah boyd. (2010). “Social Network Sites as Networked Publics: Affordances, Dynamics, and Implications.” In Networked Self: Identity, Community, and Culture on Social Network Sites (ed. Zizi Papacharissi), pp. 39-58. [.pdf]

White, M. 2003. “Too close to see: men, women, and webcams.” New Media and Society, vol. 5, pp. 7–28.

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