Public and Private

June 21, 2010 at 9:12 pm

I’m reading Clay Shirky’s new book Cognitive Surplus. Terrible title – makes it sound like a boring textbook – but the book is fantastic. I’ll write about it in more detail when I’m finished, but I came across a blog post that dovetails nicely with some of Shirky’s points as well as recent events, so I thought I’d mention it now.

Author Jeff Jarvis writes a blog called BuzzMachine. He writes about news and media and new media, but he’s also written about his battle with cancer. In this post he writes about the value of sharing information:

Yes, I believe we have a right and need to protect our privacy – to control our information and identities – but I also want the conversation and our decisions to include consideration of the value of sharing and linking. I also want to protect what’s public as a public good; that includes our internet. We have plenty of privacy advocates. I want to be a publicness advocate.

Libraries have always been great advocates of privacy, and I think that’s important. But in the wake of all the recent Facebook privacy controversy, I think this is a really valid point to make. Do I think that Facebook (or any other site) ought to make clear what’s public and what’s private, and not change those settings for people without their knowledge or permission? Absolutely! But people also have the ability to trade a measure of privacy for greater connection online, and the potential benefits of sharing are tremendous.

One of Shirky’s big points is that there is a great deal of social value, and often even civic value, in what people share online, and to denigrate social media tools as time-wasters or navel-gazing is to miss the point. Jarvis is opinionated and outspoken and has been blasted for oversharing the details of his health problems, but he is quick to point out the support, encouragement and valuable information he wouldn’t have received any other way than through responses to what he puts out in public. As a general rule, I think free-flowing information is good, and that it’s the responsibility of each person to determine for themselves what they do or don’t want to read, watch or experience.

As librarians, what’s our role? A lot of these decisions and transactions happen outside of our purview and without our input, but we can be vocal within our spheres of influence, advocating for more transparency in privacy controls and for keeping information free and accessible. And we can certainly help educate our customers so that they are well-informed when it comes time to make those decisions for themselves.

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