Steven Johnson writes:

In our house, we have had health issues . . . that we have chosen not to bring to the public sphere of the valley. We have kept them private not because we’re embarrassed by them, but because some things we already think about enough and would frankly rather think less about, and we don’t need to the extra prodding of 1,000 Facebook friends thinking alongside us. Every revelation sends ripples out into the world that collide and bounce back in unpredictable ways, and some human experiences are simply too intense to let loose in that environment. The support group isn’t worth the unexpected shrapnel. Most of us, I think, would put the intensities of sex and romantic love in that category: the intensity comes, in part, from the fact that the experience is shared only in the smallest of circles.But no doubt something is lost in not bringing that part of our lives to the valley. Somewhere in the world there exists another couple that would benefit from reading a transcript of your lover’s quarrel last night, or from watching it live on the webcam. Even a simple what-I-had-for-breakfast tweet might just steer a nearby Twitterer to a good meal. We habitually think of oversharers as egoists and self-aggrandizers. But what Jarvis rightly points out is that there is something profoundly selfish in not sharing.

Really? Wow, every day brings new evidence of my moral corruption. Someone out there is eating Pop-Tarts because of my failure, on so many mornings, to describe my wife Teri’s homemade muffins. A couple’s marriage is crumbling because I neglected to tell the world about the last fight Teri and I had — they would have “benefited” from that account . . . somehow. In fact, how could I have gone all these years without keeping a 24-hour-a-day webcam on myself?? Just think of the opportunities for enriching society I have missed! I have absolutely no idea what those opportunities could be, of course, but that just makes me feel worse. And greater still my guilt for assuming that people like Darnell Dockett are being exhibitionistic when they create live video streams of themselves taking showers. Why are you apologizing, Darnell? You should have said, “People, I wasn’t doing this for me, I was doing it for you!”

Seriously, I can understand and sympathize with the argument that what some call “oversharing” is defensible and even in some cases valuable. But to suggest that people who fail to expose their lives online are selfish is the height, or depth, of absurdity.


  1. Johnson is making the same error as the person who thinks that, because God can bring good out of pain and suffering, pain and suffering must be good things.

    If you throw a random picture, story, or video in front of a million people, it's not surprising that one or more of them would be able to find something edifying in it. That doesn't mean that the thing itself was inherently worth sharing.

    Conversely, if there's a couple out there that are in a place where seeing a video clip of you arguing with your wife would give them some enlightenment about their relationship, it's likely there are thousands of other stimuli (out of the billions available on the internet) that would achieve the same effect.

  2. Oh and this quote from Danah Boyd (linked from that Nick Carr article needs to be repeated by every single reporter who interviews Mark Zuckerberg:

    If Facebook wanted radical transparency, they could communicate to users every single person and entity who can see their content.

  3. Peggy Noonan's current essay, The Eyes Have It, is a great argument for personal privacy, whether or not sharing helps other people. Our secrets make us human.
    Paul Tournier wrote a book on the subject.

  4. My illustration is this: What if all my fellow atrial fibrilation patients (another ailment, sorry) shared what their days were 24 hours before our mysterious onsets. Maybe, just maybe, in that data there would be clues to understand causes and perhaps even cures. In that scenario, choosing not to share one's data is depriving the community of patients of data that could lead to knowledge. No, I'm not suggesting that sharing breakfast is a social necessity. But keeping to onesself information that could be helpful to others (when it costs one nothing to share it)? Selfish? I think so.

  5. Jeff, in the example you give the social good is obvious. It's obvious because it can clearly be specified, and because any costs in privacy are outweighed by the potential benefits to the sharer and to the community alike.

    But are Johnson's examples at all like yours? Is it really at all likely that "Somewhere in the world there exists another couple that would benefit from reading a transcript of your lover's quarrel last night, or from watching it live on the webcam"? I think such an outcome is vanishingly unlikely, whereas the loss of privacy — the exposure of one's personal difficulties to anyone in the world who wants to see them — is certain.

    So (obviously) I'm not saying "dont share your information with anyone": but I am saying that pubic sharing if one's personal life is a really silly default position to assume, if only because the cost-benefit ratios are bad.

  6. The the problems of quality of data vs. quantity of data have been big issues as doco filmmaking has moved from high-quality, higher cost acquisition mediums to lower-cost, lower quality ones. Naturally as the volume of data production increased there was a huge shift of resources from production to post production; followed an arms race in who can have the most cameras trained on a project; and we're now turning back to who can have the best.

    It seems to me that a lot of faith is being placed in being able to sort data mechanically. Having been let down tremendously by that approach, I'm probably not in the best position to offer an opinion, unless you're purposely looking for a biased opinion. Is there a meta-tag for that?

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