Guilty. I feel guilty that I have a blog and haven't contributed to it for seven months. Guilty that all my pals on Facebook post cool pictures, while the last shots I uploaded were of Fourth of July fireworks—from 2007. Guilty that I haven't Dugg anything since, well, ever.
It's not that I don't like social networking—I adore it. I love the way it transforms my ragged circle of contacts and acquaintances into something approaching a community. Every site becomes a personalized small town where strangers don't stay that way for long. I'm fascinated by the quirks and preferences my "friends" reveal through comments, status reports, and alerts.
That's where my guilt comes in. Because of time constraints and just plain reticence, I worry that I'm snatching morsels from the information food bank without making any donations. Instead of healthy, reciprocal participation, I'm flirting with parasitic voyeurism.
So, driven by guilt, I try to pitch in. I post Facebook status reports, send iPhone snapshots to Flickr, link my Netflix queue with FriendFeed. But as my participation increases, I invariably suffer another psychic downside of social networking: remorse.
The more I upload the details of my existence, even in the form of random observations and casual location updates, the more I worry about giving away too much. It's one thing to share intimacies person-to-person. But with a community? Creepy.
NYU lecturer and Wired correspondent Clay Shirky notes in his 2008 book, Here Comes Everybody
, that sharing personal information on social networks is not the same as broadcasting. It's more like dishing with close buddies in a mall food court.
The latest source of my dilemma is Twitter, which lets you spit out real-time reports about what you're thinking and doing. It's fun to track the digital ejaculations of selected Twitterati. But a couple thousand people signed up unsolicited to follow my tweets. And I feel guilty when not serving this hungry crowd—remorseful when I am.
Since I don't know many in this mob, I try not to be personally revealing. Still, no matter how innocuous your individual tweets, the aggregate ends up being the foundation of a scary-deep self-portrait. It's like a psychographic version of strip poker—I'm disrobing, 140 characters at a time.
Every so often, I get a glimpse of the effects of tossing all this personal confetti to the winds. In November, I attended an industry conference, and so many people congratulated me on the Phillies World Series win that I felt like Chase Utley. How did they know I'm a Phillies fan? Duh, they read my dispatches from Citizen's Bank Park during game four. And if they're still following, they also know about my son's college plans, my recent travel itinerary, and the fact that I filed this column late.
We hear a lot about privacy violations by Big Brother and Little Brother. But what if the fault lies not in our siblings but in ourselves? For a reality check, I called Marc Rotenberg, head of the Electronic Privacy Information Center and an utter hawk when it comes to protecting personal data. He told me to relax. "One aspect of privacy is the ability to project yourself as you choose," he says. Services like Facebook and Twitter are strictly opt-in, so as long as the information isn't divvied out to marketers, Rotenberg is OK with it: "That is freedom."
So now I'm feeling guilty—for being remorseful. Maybe I should complain about it in my next tweet.
Want to add to Steven Levy's already heavy psychic burden? Follow his comment stream on Twitter at twitter.com/stevenjayl.
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