Urge social media generation to realize the value of privacy
My New Jersey grandma, like many during Thanksgiving, lamented the post-millennial generation for their penchant for publicizing themselves online. “They have no boundaries,” she said over the 12-pound turkey, “and absolutely no sense of self-identity.” Age breeds wisdom, the adage goes. And she’s not wrong: In our age of location-sharing and Bitmoji-creating, our sense of privacy has undoubtedly become severely diminished. But why?
One word: Fluidity. Our postmodern era collapses boundaries for fluidity. The general dissolution of national borders, for instance, with the mass migration of refugees, can be demonstrated by two related trends. The first is the belief that borders are harmful because they cause wars and strife. In “Imagine,” John Lennon captured this sentiment. He sings, “Imagine there’s no countries … no religion, too,” glorifying the totally homogenous world devoid of distinctness that so many dystopian authors, Orwell and Bradbury included, warned us about.
We also see this trend toward border-erasing with our keenness to designate ourselves “citizens of the world” but near-revulsion at calling ourselves proud, exceptional Americans.
But borders between countries and other boundaries have not been the only ones to suffer collapse with postmodernism; those between the private and public spheres have disappeared as well. And the result is an unfortunate lack of privacy.
It makes sense: Privacy stands in direct opposition to this blurring of boundaries; rather than demolish borders, privacy seeks to establish them. For its “building of borders” and inhibition of fluidity, this sequestration of the inner self from the eyes of the public may appear to many post-millennials as a source of conflict.
But, as history and personal experience teach us, borders are essential; they are the critical filters that enable us to have the relationships, safety and dignity we need. Most of us wouldn’t tell a professor, for instance, about our sexual habits, nor would we want to. We also wouldn’t want, as a nation, to allow the entrance of terrorists onto our soil.
But in our postmodern age of relative truth, the instituting of boundaries may seem gratuitously egotistic, selfish or suggestive of a superiority complex. We may take it personally, for example, when a friend refuses to share a piece of information with us, or perhaps we suspect that the friend who doesn’t use Facebook thinks him or herself “too good for it.”
I would argue to the contrary. In the case of privacy, boundaries are a matter of respect for yourself and the other, and privacy is essential to maintaining the boundaries that accord us proper dignity.
Another reason that privacy is important is surely that it protects us — not only our tangible assets like intimate conversations and relations but the more abstract ones as well, like our individuality and self-identity. If we expose our inner self to the outer world, inevitably the former will be subjected to the judgment and criticism of that latter — a slippery slope. While such feedback, in healthy circumstances — such as from close family and friends — can feel supportive, these responses online can become harmful. Taken seriously, positive feedback — primarily in the form of “likes” and comments can become addicting. The result is a social dependence on the affirmation and acceptance of mere acquaintances, or even strangers.
Many of our younger siblings, I’m sure, have fallen prey to this alarming phenomenon. In a , Dr. Victoria Dunckley explains the issues that social media engenders in adolescents. Such a dependency on the “likes” and comments of others leads — as it has with my all-too-popular younger brother — to a deficiency in the cultivation of the self, not to mention what Instead of learning to play piano or reading Harry Potter, too many children are nowadays spending hours framing their next Instagram shot or taking selfies in the mirror. This is not merely the lamenting grandma in me; it is genuinely disconcerting: Many of the skills kids are building are those that will leave them empty — both empty-feeling and empty-handed, in their lack of actual skills.
Another implication of our penchant to publicize is the lengthening of childhood — we’re prolonging the time it takes for us to mature. By replacing skill development, hobbies, and general playtime with swiping down screens, we’re effectively ignoring, avoiding and forgetting that this person inside — the self — exists independently of what others have to say and desperately needs our undivided attention. In fact, a cites our decline in play-time over the last few decades as a reason we’re becoming less connected with ourselves, our emotions and our decision-making processes.
Due to the ubiquitous presence of social-media platforms like Snapchat, being alone and not sharing your day’s activities with the outer world has become so stigmatized that it’s practically impossible to spend a Sunday as such, reading or playing an instrument. But I don’t think the self can only be cultivated alone: Our close familial and friendly bonds can also help us concretize our identity. But as for those mere acquaintances that “like” our statuses and photos, I’m afraid they can’t. And I’m afraid their effect on the development of our identities is insidious — subtle, gradual and harmful, primarily for the vacuum they leave behind. What they provide — namely, an instant sense of affirmation — is artificial. Their “liking” us is actually quite deceitful: Real and meaningful on the surface and yet supremely vacuous and fake beneath.
And herein lies the problem: the apparently benign but actually malignant nature of spreading ourselves thin over social media platforms. What seems like a harmless way of living is actually a significant invasion of privacy, and as college students “we are too young to gauge the long-term harm,” as my grandma might say. This harm, primarily, is a reduction or dilution of the self.
In America, there is also a sense in which privacy is the protection of individual freedom. Take the Third Amendment, for instance, which stipulates that United States soldiers cannot, in peacetime, be “quartered in any house, without the consent of the owner,” nor during wartime, except “in a manner to be prescribed by law.” This law is clearly about privacy. Residents being forced to house soldiers would undoubtedly constitute an infringement upon their freedom.
Most notably, the Fourth Amendment protects us against unreasonable search and seizure, arbitrary arrests and other government invasions of privacy.
In 1890, Boston lawyers Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis published their “The Right to Privacy” in the Harvard Law Review. What prompted the piece, Brandeis and Warren explained, was the unbecoming slander and gossip pervading the news pages. Thus, a protection of Americans’ intangible goods — not only of reputation but other assets — became necessary. “[O]nly a part of the pain, pleasure, and profit of life [lies] in physical things,” they wrote. “Thoughts, emotions, and sensations [also] demanded legal recognition.” The way to protect these intangible goods is with what Brandeis and Warren termed “the right to be let alone” — in essence, privacy, or more specifically intellectual-property law. That Brandeis and Warren found it so necessary for the government to protect the dignity of the individual should teach us that we, too, should protect this dignity of ours.
What’s the lesson? Listen to your grandmas. But really: Privacy is essential, as a protector of our inner lives, the cultivation of our individuality and even our freedom. So maybe think twice next time before posting something online.