Sociability's value comes from privacy

A smashing essay on Kyro Beshay's site about the relationship between sociability and privacy is a must-read:

Social networks and services have definitely given us new and seamless ways to communicate with people from across the globe, pushing the boundaries of what in our lives is deemed acceptable to share, but a wall has been hit and the efforts to tear it down have left me uncomfortable. I’m specifically talking about this new move to broadcast what pages and messages we’ve viewed, without our consent. Services like BBM have long been guilty of this, but the idea has seen increased adoption recently with services like FB Messenger and Apple’s iMessage. In fact, this whole push for “passive sharing” has been gaining momentum, with Quora as the latest transgressor.

We’re now forced into an obligation to respond to a person’s message, almost immediately. With email and texting, there exists a wall of privacy and discretion where the person on the receiving end is given full power to read, ignore, or respond without being bound by deadlines or expectations. I may not want to read or reply to a message for a myriad of reasons – I need time to think of a proper response, I’m waiting on other plans to get sorted, or the sender is just someone who really annoys me. My question is: Is this sort of stuff increasing the value of our social interactions? I don’t think so. In fact, I’d argue that it’s making our interactions less enjoyable. Many friends have mentioned how others knowing when they’ve read a message has made for many awkward situations; and I wholeheartedly agree.

Being Social Is About Being Private


  1. I’ve thought of this myself and the truth is that nowadays if you have an iPhone or other smart phone, you will get messages and email within seconds of them being sent. The old excuse of “I haven’t checked my email today” doesn’t really fly. My solution is to have a thicker skin and respond when I’m ready to rather than when I project that I’m required to.

    FWIW, I don’t even check FB anymore so if someone wants me, they have to call, text, email or drive to my house. Social networks like FB don’t cost physical money but they are certainly not free.

    1.  Preach it.  This is why I have a cell phone which is very, very non-smart.  I find being a technological old fart immensely tranquil.

    2.  I can’t agree with you more wholeheartedly. Most people that know me, and with whom I would like to converse, have my e-mail address, phone number and know where to find me, usually. I value my privacy.

      It is probably due to my attention deficit disorder that I find it annoying to have my concentration broken while I am performing a task. When all these messenger programs started to appear I used them for a little while, but found myself turning them off just so that I could get some work done. Now it is the same with my cell phone. When I need to get something done, I turn the phone off.

    3.  Technology isn’t exactly the problem, it’s how we as a society have used it. Because we Can respond instantly to a text or e-mail we think we have to, but that’s a habit, and habits can be broken and some really should be.

    4. My profession encourages me to dread the phone. When project managers email, the usual documented conditions apply. When they phone, they intend to carve away on all sides of my payment.

    5. the truth is that nowadays if you have an iPhone or other smart phone, you will get messages and email within seconds of them being sent. The old excuse of “I haven’t checked my email today” doesn’t really fly.

      Gotta disagree with that one. “I didn’t get it” doesn’t fly, but “I haven’t checked my email” can very well be a true statement. (Haven’t bothered to check mine since Friday, in fact…)

  2. i wonder if this will open a market for privacy-focused web services?  people are getting used to paying a few bucks a month for services like spotify.  perhaps they’ll pay a couple bucks for a social network that doesn’t market them to their sponsors?

  3. This is kind of tangential to the actual article, but I find privacy in the sense that “I am communicating privately” makes me a lot more social.  I remember in the early days of Facebook when the only people that I was friends with were very close friends, we posted pretty much anything.  No one would be in the slightest bit offended if you posted a picture of them vomiting with a beer in one hand.  No one was shy about bitching and moaning about whatever political whats-it that crossed their mind.  No one cared because the only people that saw that sort of stuff were people that already knew it was going on.  These were not secrets, just common knowledge and laughs among friends.

    Now though?  Bah.

    Everyone and their dog is your “friend” and it is socially unacceptable to  hit the big ol’ “ignore” button on a friend request from someone you want to have civil relations with.   It is somewhere between hard and impossible to share with a select group without those communications leaking out.  If you post pictures of your friend doing Irish Yoga with whiskey in hand and drool leaking from the corner of their mouth, you can safely assume that you also just sent the picture to their mother, grand mother, co-workers, students, and boss.  What would normally be a funny picture that close friends would appreciate is now a serious problem.

    The lack of privacy, the ability to communicate to a select few with a high degree of confidence that those communications will remain private, has made it so that I just don’t use Facebook all that much.

    Personally, I am sad that G+ wasn’t exactly a smashing success.  Their privacy controls were simple and nearly perfect.  For the short time that me and a few friends were using it, it was utterly fantastic, if less than full featured.  It was awesome to be able to easily post a cool tech article publicly, and then turn around and post aout drunken escapades to a handful of close friends.  Alas, I fear G+ will never take off, even though it is starting to fill out a little in terms of features.

    1. I agree with your point on privacy encouraging open communication. I eventually had to go permanently “off the record” in my own home. My wife had an annoying tendency of posting everything remotely funny I said, which meant that I was never joking with her, I was joking with everyone the two of us had ever met. Every conversation became a performance.

      Once she got used to sharing, real intimacy became much harder to achieve. I don’t think “what I say to you in private is ALWAYS just between us” is an unreasonable rule for a married couple, but do think it’s odd to need to explicitly state so as a rule. Similarly, I wouldn’t be stating this AT ALL on a site like G+ that had a real name policy.

      Also, as long as I’m posting: it seems to me that the ability to instantly pester each other is dramatically changing the way we interact. I actually had a professor berate me once in office hours for not checking my email. He had made a mistake in a problem statement, and emailed a correction, which I had not yet seen. “What do you mean you didn’t check it? I sent it out this morning? You HAVE to check your email. It’s unprofessional not to.” Being a an unemployed college junior at the time, my immediate response was “I’m not professional. I’m a student. I’m not a GRA. I have no professional obligations. My friends have my cell phone number. I’m amazed that I even check email at all. Three hour-long classes a week should be more than enough time to communicate anything.” It was made even weirder by the fact I never gave him an email address: the university gave him one that they had on file, from when I had electronically applied to the school years earlier.

      Does it make sense for a research professor to check email frequently and respond promptly? Of course. Does it make sense for his colleagues and GRAs to do likewise? Yes. Is the simple student under similar obligations when no “electronic relationship” has been established? I would argue not. I’d say it’s no more appropriate than calling a professor at home, or swinging by a co-worker’s house uninvited. There are distinct spheres of private, professional, social, and public life, and the ease of digital communication seems to help people forget that.

      1. I agree with your greater point, but I can’t agree with your point about being a student. I am coming from both sides of the equation here – I was a university undergrad and graduate student and when I was a grad student I taught large numbers of undergrads.

        Even as a lowly undergrad, you’re in an environment where everyone communicates through email and often important communications are made in no other way. If you’re taking your classes seriously, you need to adapt to that, even if most of the semester you don’t get anything important in your email.

        Your mistake perhaps is your assumption that no electronic relationship has been established. It’s an understandable mistake, because not all professors make it clear at the start – because to them it’s implicit. That’s the way things are done at universities and despite what it may seem universities are still about teaching students, so if you’re a student, you need to be able to fit in with the way things are done.

         And yeah – I don’t like calling that “being professional” in the context of being a student either, but that’s pretty much what it is, and it is nothing like calling your professor at home etc. (neither you or your professors have to read or respond to emails “off the clock” even if most people do).

        p.s. I regularly had students who didn’t check their email, and they often missed important information. I also made it clear at the beginning of the course that the students needed to check their email; didn’t help. You can’t expect me to help you or to even care if you’re not making an effort to participate in the university system/culture/etc.

  4. Isn’t the better outcome a decrease in social hypocrisy? In other words, since none of us responds to every message we see the moment we see it, we should not expect anyone to always immediately respond to our every message.

    Privacy is useful in many ways, but the facilitation of pretending to do (or not do) certain things, or saying one thing and doing another are not among them. There is no reason to be insulted or outraged by something that everyone does.

    1. Totally agree. This wave of some kind of digital-aspergers where people feel obligated to be constantly socialising is just weird. I go out to a pub with friends and half of them put their phones on the table so they can fiddle with it every few minutes and it’s actually ridiculously antisocial for everyone around them.

      Having an automatic ‘has read’ is useful for certain things – thinking it imposes a mandate for ‘has replied’ is insane. Letting go of worrying about whether or not it hurts someone’s feelings for the couple of hours it may take between reading and writing a reply makes for much better communication.

  5. “We’re now forced into an obligation to respond to a person’s message, almost immediately. With email and texting, there exists a wall of privacy and discretion where the person on the receiving end is given full power to read, ignore, or respond without being bound by deadlines or expectations.”

    The two sentences are contradictory. Either you’re obligated to respond immediately or you’re not.

    I’ve found that with the proliferation of means of communication, people are less likely to respond, probably because individual messages take on less significance. It can be quite annoying. And yes, they need to get off my lawn.

    1. I understand and completely agree with the statement. As a written message that you can read and respond to at your leisure, it’s implicit that it should be read and responded to on your schedule. If you’re in the middle of something (like a meeting with your boss, or even just a favorite TV show), you can put it off. Anything more important could have involved a phone call, where immediate feedback is available, even demanded. In a phone call, failure to provide immediate feedback leads to a very visible “failure” of the call: a busy signal, voicemail, or simple failure to pick up. It should be clear that texts are more like notes, or letters, right?

      Unfortunately, that’s not how a lot of people see it. People interpret “free to read and respond any time” as meaning “you should respond instantly, because there’s no excuse not to.” Stuck in a meeting? Just text as you listen/talk. At dinner? It’s only a few seconds. Don’t know the answer? Just text that back so the original sender isn’t left hanging. The sender doesn’t care how rude you are to the people you’re with offline, and it can’t be rude to intrude on your private time, because you two have a relationship, right? The only reason for delay that can be appreciated by a narcissist (which is almost everyone today) is that you just don’t WANT to respond, that your relationship is not so good as they might have originally thought.

      Freedom to respond means an obligation to do so. That’s a pretty big burden.

      This isn’t just theory either. I’ve had friends joke to me, “yeah, I guess if we need to get in touch with you we should go through your wife; she always responds.” My response is that if it’s so important, they should call, and if it’s not important, I’m not going to make an effort to even check. I may get back the same day, I may not. “That’s ridiculous,” responded one friend, “you get back to a text immediately. At least, that’s what I’ve come to expect.” There’s at least one more instances where this same friend was starting to feel dejected  because his other friends weren’t responding to his texts: it had been almost an hour.

      When you come to correlate friendship with being able to intrude into any waking minute, you’re going to have a lot more social friction.

  6. iMessage is a counter-productive example as ‘read receipts’ are turned off by default. When a user chooses to enable that feature, others can only see read receipts for the messages they themselves receive. The whole iMessage service makes an assumption that the user wants privacy which is exactly the opposite of many other services. It is the fact that most services require specific user intervention to ensure privacy that is the underlying issue here.

  7. What I hate is the ‘leakage’ from the likes of Facebook, I have a very sedate forum that doesn’t really need to be ‘whoop! whoop! instant’ or have people, ‘playing to the gallery’, looking for non existant +1’s.

    There’s a few members that have no shame, you get the feeling they’d teabag a webcam for some attention. They’ve done nothing wrong, yet.. but that social media excitability really makes it a chore dealing with various characters sometimes.

  8. We should be able to regulate our availability but, I tell you what, I am SO grateful that the iMessage feature tells me that my boss got the text about his pick-up time change when he’s in a meeting elsewhere.  Don’t you know that feeling: desperate to deliver a message that will have great impact if it’s not received?

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